Keynote address by Minister Lulu Xingwana at the official opening of the Inaugural National Book Week, Museum Africa, New Town, Johannesburg

PDF version
10 Sep 2010

Programme Director,
Elitha van der Sandt, CEO of the SA Book Development Council
Board and Members of the SA National Book Development Council
Prof. Keorapetse Kgositsile, National Poet Laureate
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Victor Mecoamere, Sowetan Nation Building Manager
Ugan Poobalan from Van Schaik
Partners of National Book Week
Senior Government Officials
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen,

We open South Africa’s inaugural National Book Week on a very sad note. One of our literary icons, Prof Lewis Nkosi, was laid to rest in Durban earlier today. Nkosi succumbed to death before midnight on Sunday after a long illness. 

My deepest condolences go to the Nkosi family, the South African literary fraternity and the lovers of the word across the globe. Through his work, Nkosi will always linger in our collective memory as a courageous writer, critic, journalist and literary scholar who kept the torch of South African literature aloft for over four decades.

In pursuit of a reading culture and in promoting South African literature to a local and international audience, I am glad that our writers continue to put South Africa on the global map. Following the widely publicized volcanic eruption in Ireland and the subsequent closure of the airspace in Europe, only 13 out of 53 South African writers were able to participate at the London Book Fair this year. This unfortunate incident thwarted our efforts and those of our partners, including the British Council, Mappp Seta and the Publishers’ Association of SA (PASA). This forced us to go back to the drawing board and redirect our efforts.
We gave greater support to the Cape Town Book Fair where a number of notable writers, including Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, participated.

Our objective with the Cape Town Book Fair is to afford more emerging writers and small publishers opportunities to take part in this prestigious event and profile themselves among the best in the world. Furthermore, we want to ensure that the surrounding communities are part of the experience and that the book fair is easily accessible.

More recently, a very successful Jozi Book Fair was held in Johannesburg in which interesting discussions were held and this event also attracted new participants and audiences into the literary scene.

In recent years the Department of Arts and Culture has also sponsored literary events in Durban and a number of other centres.

I think it is high time that initiatives are also extended to our rural communities so that the culture of reading is also supported outside our big cities and so that new platforms can be established and young writers emerge out of these places and take their place on the national stage.

We also continue with our mandate of opening opportunities for the promotion of South African literature in the world.

A few weeks ago I led a delegation to the Edinburgh Book Festival, where a number of South African writers were featured alongside over 700 writers from all over the world. I am confident that the seven participating writers hoisted the South African flag with pride.

But what was encouraging is the manner in which the Edinburgh Book Festival is organised. The festival is held in a park, where the organizers erect marquees and reading tents for purposes of the festival. Even the auditorium is a makeshift tent that can be moved from one place to another.

It was inspiring to see families go to a Book Festival as an outing. This demonstrates the positive attitude towards reading, which is something that we need to work really seriously on as South Africans in order to take literature to our people as part of the living reality that they need to engage with, as part of who they are. This is why we need more South Africans to write about their lives and their dreams. This is the way we build on the vast South African story, so that readers too can see that what they read is part of their lives.

I am pleased to note that the South African book sector is growing at an unprecedented pace. The latest figures indicate that the book industry in South Africa has a net turnover of R5 billion. It is ironic that of this figure, author royalties account for a mere R300 million. If we were to unpack the details of royalty distribution, you will learn that these royalties are unevenly balanced with regard to race demographics. 

The other disappointing fact is that our burgeoning literary landscape has not translated into a significant increase in readership. Much still needs to be done by mothers and fathers, teachers, fellow students and by communities to ensure that ours is a reading culture. 

Government also needs to play its part in the realization of this goal with a greater focus on literature in the school curricula, the stocking of school libraries and community libraries. In this regard, we are in discussion with the Ministry and Department of Basic Education. We are also consolidating the DAC project of the establishment and refurbishment of community libraries.

The establishment of National Book Week is therefore a long overdue undertaking. The purpose of the National Book Week is to develop a dedicated programme for the promotion of reading nationally. The main focus of the programme will be the promotion of South African literature in indigenous languages.

We are grateful to the South African Book Development Council for their efforts in coordinating growth strategies for the book sector. We started discussions around the establishment of National Book Week in 2008 and today it is a reality.

As the Department of Arts and Culture, we are committed to the development, preservation and promotion of the wealth of both our oral and written forms of literature.

Even before the existence of the book, storytellers were the custodians of a people’s collective experience and memory. In short literature was, and remains, an integral part of a people’s heritage. 
Initiatives such as the Kwesukela Storytelling project are clear evidence that we remain committed to our cultural values.

As we launch the National Book Week, the very first in South Africa, we are adding a crucial aspect of our culture to our National Heritage Month.

Literacy and a vibrant culture of reading empower us and enhance our consciousness and thus, they are the cornerstones of our development.  The establishment of a National Book Week provides us with a unique opportunity to reinforce our efforts to promote access to books.  Our objective is to develop National Book Week into a premier platform through which government, the book sector and civil society establish a dynamic partnership to work out strategies for the promotion of literacy and reading.                  

There will be an author’s programme under the theme: Our Voices, Our Stories. The programme from the 11th to 12th September will provide an opportunity for South African writers to discuss ways of developing audiences for South African literature. There will be presentations and discussions by writers including Mandla Langa, Elinor Sisulu, P.T. Mtuze, Dumisani Sibiya, Zukiswa Wanner, Niq Mhlongo, Jo-Anne Richards, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Kopano Matlwa, Thando Mgqolozana, and Angela Makholwa.

We will continue with our efforts to support the establishment of book clubs across South Africa. We extend a word of gratitude to all the institutions that donated books as part of the National Book Week outreach programme. The response has been phenomenal – a big “thank you” to all who donated. We will be distributing the books to under-resourced libraries, schools, community centres, books clubs and other relevant institutions.

As you are aware, while Literacy Day falls in September, September is also our Heritage Month. The Department of Arts and Culture and the Kwazulu-Natal provincial government will host the 2010 national Heritage Day celebrations. The event will take place in Durban on 24 September 2010.

The focus of the celebrations is: Celebrating 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup successes: our heritage.This is a call to South Africans to celebrate our collective achievements during the FIFA World Cup.

With the collective spirit of the World Cup period we can do a lot for our country. We can also draw from our history of “Volunteerism” and help our children to read in our local community libraries. We can inculcate the spirit of reading and studying in our young generation. There are only forty-five days to the matric exam and we need to assist and encourage our youth. Parents, please assist your children too. There are study tips and guide on the education website. Now is the time we need to work in this area to build our heritage for the future. I am calling on all South Africans to rally behind the Class of 2010, like we came out in support of Bafana Bafana during the World Cup.

I am proud that National Book Week is a product of Public-Private partnership. We are delighted that the book sector, the media, the corporate sector and the civil society all joined hands to contribute towards the establishment of this initiative.

On the same note, I invite all other partners that have an interest in creating a reading society, to join hands with us as we start planning the National Book week for years to come.

Thank You.