Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, at the launch of the reprint of Classics Project; National Library, Pretoria

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25 Nov 2010

National Librarian, Mr John Tsebe
Deputy National Librarian, Ms Rachel More
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Writers and their family representatives
Publishers and literary enthusiasts
Distinguished guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honour for me to stand before you this evening to mark yet another milestone in our efforts to develop, preserve and promote our literary heritage.  The Reprint of Classics is an attempt to preserve a treasure trove from which generations after generations can quench their thirst for knowledge. This project is one of several initiatives through which we develop a vibrant culture of reading.  

Just a week ago I was in Brugge, Belgium, where we discussed areas of cooperation including literacy promotion and language development, among others. This visit further affirmed the importance of language in the sustenance of culture and identity. The Dutch and Belgians are very proud of their language, so should we.
It is against this backdrop that Literature, and particularly that written in African languages, is very close to my heart. It is through literature that a people’s way of life, including norms and values, are chronicled and transferred from one generation to another.

One of the most vocal proponents of language preservation in the African literary landscape is Ngugi Wa Thing’o. In his book, Decolonizing the Mind (1986), Ngugi eloquently argues, “Language caries culture, and culture caries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world…” The Department of Arts and Culture, as the custodian of our nation’s cultural heritage, is driven by the vision of promoting the culture of reading and writing and encouraging the use and equitable development of all South African languages.

It is ironic that despite our constitutional privilege, which recognizes eleven official languages, the nine indigenous languages languish at the bottom of the hierarchy in the publishing industry. This is quite a shame for a society that prides itself in its diverse cultures. Language is central to our identity and this is one of the reasons our constitution recognizes eleven official languages. Nine of these languages did not enjoy an official status until the advent of democracy. Political freedom is intrinsically linked with linguistic freedom. The importance of our languages is best expressed in the words of former President Nelson Mandela when he says, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
South Africa boasts a wealth of dynamic oral and written literary heritage. Before the advent of books, storytellers, poets, and orators were among the reliable custodians of a people’s collective memory in most societies. This tradition is even more endearing on the African continent. In the modern day society, the advent of books unleashed one of the most reliable means of documenting and transmitting information.

In present day South Africa, literature can be used as an important catalyst in reinforcing nation building and social cohesion. As Chinua Achebe would say, “It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it we are blind.” I might as well add that the story never forgets. It reminds us of who we are and where we come from. It is also from the wisdom of such stories that we can grapple with the present and shape the future.

The current generation of South African writers has a crucial and complex role to play in fashioning new paradigms and expanding boundaries of literary expression. Our society is confronted by challenging issues of human rights, poverty alleviation and the scourge of HIV and AIDS among others.

South African writers occupied the frontline trenches in the fight for the liberation of this country and we will continue to rely on them in our journey towards the creation of a thriving society. The eradication of illiteracy and the development of a culture of reading are some of the key challenges that confront us as a nation.

The past few years have witnessed the emergence of a galaxy of dynamic South African writers who soon established themselves among the best in the world. These writers put South Africa on the global map as they continue to win some of the most prestigious literary prizes on the continent and the world over.
 This burgeoning literary talent places South African literature in its rightful place among the best in the world.

We boast two Nobel Laureates for Literature in the names of Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee. In 2005 Mazisi Kunene, a poet of international renown, was honoured as our first National Poet Laureate.  A year later, after the passing of Kunene, another internationally acclaimed poet, Keorapetse Kgositsile, succeeded Kunene as the National Poet Laureate.  In addition to these accolades, a number of writers rank among the  most celebrated in the world, as witness:  the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner, Mandla Langa; the coveted Caine Prize for African writing winner, Henrietta Rose-Innes; the Noma Award winning poet, Lebo Mashile. These developments are coupled with the emergence of new literary journals like Baobab, Botsotso, Words etc, Timbila, etc. which create regular publishing platforms for South African writers.
These journals present the necessary platform for emerging writers to hone their skills.

Much as we encourage the development of literature as a cultural tool, there are positive economic spinoffs at the same time. According to the book industry survey conducted by the Publishers’ Association of South Africa (PASA) in 2006, our book industry boasts a net turnover in excess of R5 Billion. Over 16 000 authors earn an estimated R300 Million worth of royalties.

These indicators reveal that the book sector contributes to economic development more than it is actually recognized. Most importantly, these statistics demonstrate the potential of this industry in contributing to our economic development. We must ensure that players in this industry earn what is due to them.

However, we must guard against the over-commercialization of the book sector. It is first and foremost a knowledge sector, and this is fundamental. We must encourage aspirant writers to pursue viable careers in this sector not because it is a money making machine, but simply because they have something meaningful to contribute to our literary landscape. The profit that they stand to gain should remain secondary.

In spite of the critical acclaim with which our literature is received across the world and the continued proliferation of our literary landscape, there is still a significant lack of a culture of reading in South Africa. It is often said that “a reading nation is a winning nation” and we believe that with greater commitment to encouraging the culture of reading, South Africa will indeed become a winning nation. The development of a culture of reading is one of the fundamental aspects of building a progressive society.

The prevailing lack of a culture of reading manifests itself in various aspects of our lives, and more especially on socio-economic issues such as poverty and unemployment. Literacy underpins development in all sectors of society and is central to economic prosperity.
Apart from the employment opportunities created through the book industry, the culture of reading is a fundamental element in the modern world. There is an obvious link between illiteracy and poverty, on the one hand, and literacy and economic prosperity, on the other.  The cultivation of a culture of reading therefore becomes one of the key imperatives in our project of nation-building.

It is against this backdrop that in 2007 the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) established a book club as a way of encouraging the culture of reading among its employees. After three years of successfully convening regular book discussions, hosting guest authors and public lectures, the Book Club proved more than just a leisurely activity.
It adds meaningful value in our endeavour to address the lack of a culture of reading, and contributes towards the attainment of the broader imperatives of developing a caring, democratic and cohesive society.

Our members extend the book club phenomenon to their communities by encouraging their families, relatives and neighbours to start reading for leisure. We have now published a Book Club Information booklet that entails guidelines on how to establish a book club. We trust that this publication will be a resource in aiding our communities to establish book club and augment the reading culture by inspiring more readers.

The Department of Arts and Culture is committed to the vision of creating partnerships to develop, preserve and promote the wealth of South Africa’s diverse literary culture in both its oral and written forms. Our Books and Publishing unit, among others, is charged with the duty of promoting the culture of reading and writing, developing an efficient book industry and encouraging equitable development of all South African languages. Through a variety of strategic interventions, we create publishing opportunities for aspiring writers, encourage the culture of reading and recognise excellence in writing.

In the past couple of years we engaged the book sector through the South African Book Development Council. One of the outcomes of that discourse is the establishment of National Book Week, which was launched with laudable success in September this year. National Book Week is going to be held annually as a period dedicated to the promotion of reading and access to books. We are proud to report that a number of partners including publishers, libraries, booksellers and the media contributed enormously to this programme. Institutions such as Cambridge University Press, Exclusive Books and Van Schaik book stores donated books as part of this programme. We have recently embarked on a book donation programme where some under-resourced libraries, community groups and book clubs benefit from the scheme. Our purpose is to develop a culture of reading outside the classroom.

We embark on these initiatives conscious of the fact that without the involvement of the public, our efforts will be futile. The Reprint of Classics is one other initiative whose success is dependant largely on public participation. On this note, I must commend the publishers who responded positively to our call and worked with us in the reproduction of these books. We are delighted to note that many provincial library councils distributed the books successfully to their districts. The first phase of the project in which we reprinted a total of 27 titles, proved to be a running success. It is pleasing to note that the books that we reprinted are now in high demand.

The 19 titles that we are launching this evening are drawn from all the nine indigenous languages. These include works by luminary writers such as O.K. Matsepe, D.M. Jongilanga, D.P.S. Monyaise, L.D. Raditladi, to name but a few. The mere mention of some of these writers evokes a feeling of nostalgia in some of us. For we have fond memories of their stories to such an extent that sometimes your imagination will deceive you to think that you know the characters personally.

We encourage young writers to model their writing on the works of these literary greats. They must stand on the shoulders of these giants and reach for the highest scales in the literary landscape. Through projects such as the Indigenous Languages Publishing Programme we make efforts to encourage young writers to write and publish in our languages. In this manner, we are laying a foundation and contribute in the making of tomorrow’s classics.
However, no matter how many writers we produce, regardless of how many great books are published, for as long as there are no readers our efforts will prove meaningless.

It is for this reason that I urge the South African society to take it upon themselves to promote the culture of reading. A heightened culture of reading can only make us a better society. It takes one person encouraging a friend, relative and family member to read a particular book. The creation of a reading nation takes one person at a time. Do your part.