Address by Minister Pallo Jordan at the Launch of the South African Book Development Council , Cape Town

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17 Jun 2007

The Director of Ceremonies;
Your Excellencies Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since the invention of writing, literature has been a critical vehicle for the socialization, politicization, conscientization, education and entertainment of human beings. Writing and reading have since then been the means whereby knowledge, information have been passed down from era to era, from place to place from one group to another, from one society to another. As a repository of knowledge and the transmitter of information, writing and reading were sources of power. For centuries the ability to read and write was the monopoly of a few in all societies. Indeed, it was against the law to teach certain classes of people these skills, precisely as a means of keeping them ignorant of the society and the world they lived in, as a direct means of social control.

The first recorded example of humanity’s capacity to reason abstractly is a tiny clay tablet, presently on display at the National Assembly in Cape Town. This piece of clay contains abstract geometric designs and was found along the west coast of the Cape. The first attempts to record human experience through writing comes from the other end of the African continent, the Nile Valley, where an ancient African priesthood invented hieroglyphics , or holy signs, that recorded the ideas, thoughts and emotions of humans and thus gave them permanence.

Our forebears, who mastered the art of writing, acquired an extremely important instrument. Writing freed communication amongst people from the need for personal contact. The written word made it possible to receive the words of those who went before us; to receive the words of those who live in the present; and to pass down to the future our own words.

Literature emancipated humanity from the constraints of time and space. Having learnt how to write our thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences these became timeless. They could be transferred from one place to another; they could be transported from one time to another; they could be carried from one environment to another; and they could be carried from one people to another.

The invention of writing was probably the most profound cultural revolution experienced by humankind. Its consequences have shaped, reshaped and in the future will reshape the world we inhabit in ways that no one can anticipate.

Among the amaRharabe clans, living at the western borderlands of the Xhosa kingdoms, a young father of substance began experiencing visions that exhorted him to convert to Christianity. The visions also instructed him to read. His name was Ntiskana, the son of Gaba of the Cirha clan.

Bearing a wooden cross of his own construction, Ntiskana began preaching around the year 1806-9. As he had no bell, he used his voice to call his followers to prayer. Known today as Ntsikana’s hymn, the song he chanted represents an interesting convergence of cultural change executed through traditional expression. Chanting like an Islamic muezzin or azhan, Ntsikana used a traditional mode of African cultural expression, bearing a message of change and the call to embrace of a new world.

Ntsikana’s hymn, like his mission represents the van of an African modernity that values and seeks to preserve those aspects of African tradition and culture that have universal significance. Ntsikana was not a subjugated colonial subject seeking solace in the faith of his conquerors. He and his growing band of followers were free people, exercising a conscious choice to embrace and adapt to their own uses the skills and the technology that the White colonial society possessed in such abundance. Christianity, freely chosen rather than imposed, represented the ideology and the lifestyle of the modernist.

Ntsikana’s vision instructing him to read many say stimulated the drive for literacy amongst Christian Africans. By the middle of the 19th century, this African Christian community had grown to an extent that they had become known as the “school people”, distinguished from the rest by literacy, adherence to Christianity, and sometimes an independent income or a professional salary.

As a cultural figure Ntsikana represents the face of an indigenous African modernism, concealed within the cocoon of the Christian faith. In social as well as religious terms he was a prophetic figure as a portent of the future of both African communities in South Africa and Christianity among the Africans. The secular cultural impact of Ntsikana and the movement of Christian converts he led is that they pioneered of modern education, literacy, training and were the inspiration of an African cultural movement rooted in modernity.

The introduction and dissemination of writing and reading, originally pursued as an means of proselytizing Christianity, had the unintended consequence of opening up a new world to the indigenous African. To Ntsikana and his followers the book, the written word, and literacy were the gateway to the “Fountain of Knowledge”. Books have since occupied an important place in our lives both as an educational tool and as recreation. Hence the importance of an event like tonight’s.

It cannot be regarded as a coincidence that the major social revolutions around the world have been associated with literary movements. The first African writers in South Africa regarded themselves as the heralds of a new era of great expectations for the African people. Literacy, they believed, would open up the doors of world culture and the immense storehouse of human knowledge to our people. Those who sought to exclude Africans permanently from such vistas, in turn tried to devise various means of ensuring that we remained as non-literate, innumerate and as un-informed as possible. As a government that takes seriously the challenge of making the 21st century an African century, we are determined to ensure that all our people have access to literacy.

As Chinua Achebe explained through one of his characters, there is much more of crucial, social significance to storytelling – in our era, the writing of books - than mere entertainment. Reading, writing and books as literary and cultural artefacts, have become an essential part of our heritage. That makes it imperative for government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to work together in partnerships that will create greater access to reading materials for more of our people. The importance of cultural expression, the full creative potential of the reading, writing and publishing sector will only be realized when all the diverse people of our country and the region have reasonable access to the means to write, to read and to be published. This imposes extremely serious obligations on our publishers.

The greater availability and promotion of literature should contribute to nation building and the furtherance of the African Renaissance. It should raise awareness of the works of quality that have been produced over the years in previously marginalized languages, not only among those fortunate enough to have been exposed to the literature of their own culture, but among all South Africans. The possibility of exploring and expressing the entire spectrum of human experience in indigenous African literature can only enrich the cultural life of South Africa.

Tonight’s launch should be the starting point of a sustained campaign to actively promote literature by inspiring a culture of reading amongst South Africans. All this we can do by widening the access our people have to literature and by making them aware of literature and its great virtues.

A number of surveys and studies tell us that poor performance in reading among both learners and adults owes much to the absence of reading material in the African languages. These same studies suggest that people can most readily be encouraged to read when there is material available in the languages in which they have the greatest facility.

We want to remedy that. We therefore envisage the dissemination and translation of outstanding works in our various languages. To achieve this we will enter into partnership with publishers' associations, writers' associations, our universities, and the Department of Education.

Books are the bridge that spans gulf between the past and the future. They are “…the memory of peoples, communities, institutions and individuals, the scientific and cultural heritage, and the products through time of our imagination, craft and learning. They join us to our ancestors and are our legacy to future generations. They are used by the child, the scholar and the citizen, by the business person, the tourist and the learner. These in turn are creating the heritage of the future.”

We will open up this vast treasure house to all our people, by bringing these repositories of centuries of learning and culture to them in words that they can most readily understand.
To stimulate and spur on the culture of reading I have instituted a number of literary prizes. We have a prize for original work in the indigenous languages. This prize shall be given a name so as to lend it prestige and to give it an identity.

We also have a prize for new work in the indigenous languages, all nine of them, which we hope will encourage the many talented and gifted young writers out there to set out their hopes, dreams and ideals in the languages they speak at home.
We also offer a prize for literature in translation, from anyone of South Africa’s official languages, to another.
Because the DAC does not have the capacity to manage all these on its own, we rely on the support and commitment of our tertiary institutions and that of our writers themselves to provide the panels of judges and readers who evaluate the works and award the prizes.

So from this podium, let the word go out to all who write, if you want to write or think you can write - this is an open invitation to you. We want to see your works in print. Let today be the commencement of a movement to enrich and nurture a truly South African literary tradition.

I feel extremely privileged to have been assigned this tiny role in what could evolve into a Renaissance in literature not only here is South Africa, but in our region, and indeed on the continent.
Thank You.