Address by Director General Vusumuzi Mkhize on behalf of Minister Nathi Mthethwa at The International Literacy Day Celebrations and the Launch of the Book, Cory in the Universe, National Library of South Africa, Tshwane

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08 Sep 2020

Chair of the National Library of SA, Mr T Dlamini,

Esteemed living literary legend and Poet Laureate, Dr W Serote,

CEO of the National Library of SA, Mr K Madumo,

Acting CEO of the PANSALB, Mr W Manana

Acting CEO of the NHC, Ms L Mabe,

Chair of the South African Book Development Council, Prof A Oliphant,

CEO of PASA (Publishers Association of South Africa), Mr Mpuka Radinku

Esteemed authors, Ntandoyenkosi Kunene and Thokozane Dyosini,

Distinguished Guests,

Members of book clubs present,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Before we talk to the subject of today’s gathering, let us pay tribute to the writers who have lost their lives during this weekend. 

It is with great sadness that we have heard of the passing of Myesha Jenkins, a poet supreme, an anti-apartheid activist, who chose to leave her home in California to make a new life in South Africa. And she stayed and began to write jazz poetry based on her experiences here and was not content to bear witness to our times, but became an organiser of poets and took poetry to the radio stations and to the night clubs and established houses of poetry where young people could come and read and feel at home. 

We also pay tribute to Achmat Dangor, who wrote poetry and novels over many years that have a struck a chord with readers and won awards. His first collection of poetry, Bulldozer, spoke to the struggle against apartheid and in new times he led the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Foundation to new heights through his presence. 

Our condolences go to their families and friends. Their words teach us and inspire us and their books will continue to enrich our lives.

We gather here today to celebrate National Literacy Day and the opening of National Book Week under circumstances that are very different from that of yesteryear or even 7 months ago.

In the times we live in, COVID-19 has changed the way we carry out even our most basic tasks and even more so on those occasions that are celebratory or involve engagement with masses of people. 

COVID-19 has reminded us that throughout the centuries, humanity has triumphed over adversity of all kind. 

As our country faces the twin challenges of sustaining lives and the livelihoods of our people, we need to be courageous and to be able to act with boldness as we address the needs of new times, unprecedented in modern history. And we can only do so through engagement and partnerships. 

Today we mark this important day on our calendar, International Literacy Day. The world, through UNESCO, has identified this day since 8 September 1967 to remind people everywhere that literacy is about dignity and human rights – the right to read and advance a reading agenda creates a more sustainable society. 

This year’s theme highlights literacy learning from a lifelong learning perspective and focuses on the need for continuing education for youth and adults. In today’s world literacy is also digital literacy and the ability to connect with others through information and communication technologies. 

Bridging the digital divide is even more important now than ever before as the gap appears to have widened in this Covid-19 era where those who could capitalise on the new technologies and the gains of 4IR have prospered, while others who did not have these tools have not and are not able to meaningfully contribute to social, cultural and economic life. 

Therefore, we too mark this day, conscious that to fight illiteracy in all its manifestations and to instil a culture of reading and of writing, is only possible, if we act together.

We are reminded of President Ramaphosa’s observation when he said that:

“Early reading is the basic foundation that determines a child’s educational progress, through school, through higher education and into the workplace.”

(President Cyril Ramaphosa: State of the Nation Address, June 2019) 

This is why it is important that government works together with important bodies such as the PanSALB, the South African Book Development Council, the National Library and the National Heritage Council, through book clubs and reading organisations, as only together can we make a difference and ensure that our people have the tools to enable critical reading and critical thinking, skills that are acquired largely through reading and debating as a lifelong experience. 

With these skills people are able to be creative and innovative, to become technical experts or skilled artisans or entrepreneurs or intellectuals or capable of changing not only individual lives but those of whole communities, nations and states. 

And for those who cannot be among the creatives, let reading inspire you to perform your tasks well, to exceed what others have done before you so that every day you create a legacy for yourself and an inheritance of which future generations can be proud. 

With lifelong reading and writing, a reading nation becomes a winning nation capable of inspiring us through harnessing of talents and pooling of energies that can give us hope in difficult times.

Importantly, nations that learn in their own languages are able to progress faster than those who do not. So literacy cannot be about reading in English alone; it means we must learn in our mother languages and read our classics and literature in South Africa’s languages.

Literacy also means ensuring that we put in places measures for literacy for all. 

I am pleased that PanSALB has recently launched the South African Sign Language Charter  which not only deals with issues of access to information and services for the Deaf community but is also aimed at regulating the standard and quality of learning provided for the development of South African Sign Language. The charter makes provisions for the promotion of high-quality teaching of South African Sign Language. 

In promoting our indigenous languages, there is also valuable work being done by PanSALB and the National Heritage Council to ensure the preservation of languages such as the N/uu language through work being done with elders such as Ouma Katrina Esau - for it is not a misnomer to say that we will not know where we are going unless we know where we are coming from and we must carry the tools of our knowledge with us proudly. 

Let us work towards creating a living archive of our languages.

The Department together with the National Library of South Africa (NLSA) can boast that its programme of Reprinting South African Classics Project started in 1997 is still going strong and indeed going from strength to strength. Under this Project books considered to be classics are reprinted.  

These classics have been distributed, free of charge, to libraries, literary organisations, book clubs and the public.   

I am pleased that the Classics are on display today and a collection of Classics titles will also be donated to the book clubs who are with us today.  

The current phase of the Classics programme is the cross-translation of the Classics from their mother languages into other official languages.  In the past, our language differences was used as a tool to divide us but we have made huge strides, using languages and books to unite us and to cement social cohesion in our communities.  

I am pleased that aligned to the theme of Heritage Month “Celebrating South Africa’s living human treasures” the National Library is honouring living human treasures, whose literary works are part of the Classics Project, and that they are honouring five isiSwati authors for their contribution to the preservation of African literature: Dr G.A Malindzisa, Dr J.J. Thwala, Mr A.T Fakude, Mrs E.S.N Mathunjwa, and Mr J.P Shongwe.  

It is for reasons of preserving our intellectual heritage that the National Heritage Council has embarked on a mission to document the writings done by the early African intellectuals and have produced a number of such historic publications that are on display here today.

Through the Heritage Education Schools Outreach Programme the Council is also equipping learners with research, writing, presentation and reading skills to show the importance of literacy in their day to day lives.

Together with the South African Book Development Council we are celebrating National Book Week from 6 to 13 September and having a programme of activities with live reading events held online at 11 am and 3 pm every day to encourage a community of readers at libraries, at home and wherever readers can participate in this programme. 

The Book Council is also setting up a Toy Library in Xhora Mouth in the Eastern Cape which will serve 5 villages in the area as part of the NBW 2020 Legacy Project.

The Department through a new initiative, the Publishing Hub, is supporting a number of authors for the writing, editing and publishing of new work and as a result of this support, twenty book projects will soon get underway.

The children’s book we are launching today has also benefitted from this initiative.

Indeed the book that we are launching today has come at the right time. 

The authors, who are also educators, Ntandoyenkosi Kunene and Thokozane Dyosini, have demonstrated leadership and creativity in producing this book with our children in mind. 

For literature can provide a platform for us to extend our imagination and expand the social and cultural imaginary, the lens through which people imagine, understand, locate themselves and react to society as a whole. 

Literature can convey social reality but it can also instil hope.

Therefore the authors asked themselves: 

What can we do to make the present situation understandable for the girl child and the boy child?

What can we do to make the journey easier for our children, as they too navigate through these times with us? 

In answering these questions, they have produced a book that tells the story of COVID-19 for young readers in a way in which it can be understood. They have conveyed the courage of children, who are the heroes in this story.

And they have done so in many different words and expressions, as the Department has ensured that this book is published in all South Africa’s official languages. 

Therefore it is also with great pride that we support and encourage such work by young South African women that tells the South African story on its own terms.

The book, Cory in the Universe, paves the way to an answer to the many questions children have. The book also blazes a trail around what the arts and culture space can do for the nation’s children. This initiative starts a conversation and opens the road for even more difficult territory to be navigated.

We celebrate the inclusivity through the representation of the children of our country. 

We celebrate the story in which individual lives become woven and shaped into a united effort to build a people suffering under the scourge of COVID-19 but with the shared goal to overcome the suffering and to build anew.

We wish the authors well as the book enters the reading market and will become a valuable resource to instil our children with values that will help them contribute their voices for the greater good of all.

I thank you for your attention.