Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at the launch of the Indigenous Languages Literary Classics, National Library, Pretoria

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17 Feb 2009

Thank You Programme Director
Professor Rock Ralebipi-Simela, Chairperson of the National Council for Library and Information Services
Professor Muxe Nkondo, Chairperson of the National Library of South Africa Board,
My Esteemed Colleagues, the Ministers and Deputy Ministers here present,
Your Excellencies Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Mr. Tommy Matthee, President of the Library and Information Association of South Africa,
Ms Rachel More, President of the Library and Information Association of South Africa,
Mr. John Tsebe, the National Librarian,
Esteemed guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

This evening’s event has had a very long and rather complicated incubation.

Virtually from the day I assumed office as Minister of Arts and Culture in June 2004, I entered into a rather fruitless dialogue with our South African book publishing sector. As one who is keenly aware of the huge disparities in our society and the gaping social deficit we inherited from centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid, I felt it was incumbent on me to spur our publishing industry to undertake publishing in the indigenous African languages in earnest.

Since the invention of writing, literature has been a critical vehicle for storing information, for educating and socializing the young, and for transmitting knowledge over time and space. For centuries the ability to read and write was the monopoly of a few in all societies. Indeed, in many societies it was against the law to impart these skills certain classes of people, precisely as a means of trapping them in ignorance as a direct means of social control.

Literacy came to most people in the world as a spin-off from the activities of missionaries. Both of the aggressively proselytizing religions of the world, Christianity and Islam, base their teachings on a book, the Bible in the one instance, and the Q’uran in the other. In a country like ours, literacy amongst the African majority was directly related to missionary activity and the earliest publishing houses were linked directly to historic mission schools such as Lovedale, Marianhill, Tygerkloof and Morija in Lesotho.

Consequently, amongst most South Africans, the book is still largely regarded as an educational tool. This has sadly been borne out by recent research indicating that educational institutions remain the largest market for all books published and distributed ion this country.

The Department of Arts and Culture is charged with the responsibility of enhancing socio-economic development, promoting social cohesion, nation-building and nurturing a new sense of national identity through the development, preservation and promotion of South African arts and culture. What we are doing this evening is rediscovering something that has been mislaid for well nigh half a century: the capacity of exploring and expressing the broadest human experiences, the profoundest human emotions, humour, wit and wisdom in the indigenous African languages.

We are, in a sense, excavating a dimension of South African literature by raising awareness of works of quality that have been produced over more than one hundred and fifty years in the languages spoken in the majority of South African homes.

The creative impulse inherent in all humans has found expression through literature in every civilization and cultural community in our country. Among the creative arts the one that has fascinated humans since time immemorial is that of story-telling. The tale is the transmitter of human experience. Until the invention of the art of writing, memory was the chief tool of the story-teller’s trade. It was through memory that she/he collected the material for her/his wares. The written word permitted her/him to transport these wares from one destination to another with greater ease.

Thousands of years have elapsed since the epic of Gilgamesh was inscribed on clay tablets, but their inscription has rendered them virtually immortal. Many a writer in the African languages of South Africa probably put pen to paper envisioning such timelessness, but as we know and can relate from our own experience, once a boo ceases to be available and easily accessible, it can evaporate like dew on a hot day.

All of humanity is enriched by the retelling of an ancient tale preserved over centuries because it says so much about the human condition. As a highly self-conscious species, humanity has constantly striven to make tomorrow better than yesterday and today. Through works of our imagination we have challenged ourselves to live up to a number of ideals, interrogated our actions and repeatedly re-examined our aspirations. The creative imagination has given us heroes and heroines to emulate and villains to despise. Through the tales we tell and the literature we write, we have dredged up from the depths of our subconscious our profoundest fears and apprehensions in the shape of terrifying fiends, demons and monsters. While at the same time we have lionized our species for its capacity to overcome apparently insuperable odds and our willingness to dream the impossible dream.

The orature and the literature that has been produced by the story-tellers and writers in our indigenous languages are essentially no different from that in any other in these respects. What is specific to it is the environment in which the tales unfold. But they reveal and wrestle with the very same human frailties, foibles, idiosyncrasies and human robustness found in other literatures. If no one else wishes to preserve these works, we as South Africans have a responsibility to our nation and humanity to ensure that they survive into the future.

When my Ministry finally abandoned hope of the commercial publishing sector coming to the party, I charged the National Library with the responsibility of exploring the possibilities of partnerships with old publishing houses to have the classics in the African languages re-issued. Under the leadership of Mr. John Tsebe, we have arrived at the first station along what promises to be an interesting and often exciting journey. We envisage that our school system will very soon become aware of these republished classics and that many, otherwise lost to memory, will once again be prescribed as part of the school syllabus. The library system, otherwise starved for literature in the indigenous languages, will now have this resource to draw on. I know it will take time, but I long for the day when I can walk into Exclusive Books, or any other bookstore in South Africa, and find shelf upon shelf of books in the African languages.
There is a very ancient Chinese saying: “A thousand mile journey commences with a single step”.

This evening we are taking one small step to revive publishing in the African languages, and we shall persevere along this road despite the numerous obstacles we are bound to encounter. Yes, there will be those who wish to discourage us by pointing to the financial strain this might place on our National Library and the resources of the Department of Arts and Culture. But, if we as a nation are in earnest about an African Renaissance, it must entail the rediscovery of African genius, the revalorization of African achievements and the dissemination of the best works of the African imagination.

While this project, during these initial stages, will concentrate on classics and works of proven literary worth, it is our fervent hope that its impact will be to inspire emergent writers and even those who might have given up owing to the discouraging environment of the past, to come forward with their works.

To stimulate and spur on the culture of reading and writing, we have already instituted a number of literary prizes. We have a prize for original work in the indigenous languages.

Secondly, we l have a prize for new work in the indigenous languages, all nine of them, which has encouraged many talented and gifted young writers out there to set down their hopes, dreams and ideals in the languages they speak at home.
Thirdly, we offer a prize for literature in translation, from any one official South African language to another.
When I was appointed to this office, I assumed the responsibility of actively promoting all the languages we speak in this country. Owing to circumstances well-known to us all, the African languages have been marginalized and literature in these languages is in large measure unavailable in this country.
Today we are embarking on a new road: the commencement of a movement to enrich and nurture a truly South African literary tradition, representative of all our people and their spoken languages.

Thank You.