A snapshot of our reading culture in South Africa – time to spread the love

“It’s been more than 25 years since I met Mr Dube, my English language teacher, and I still remember him vividly.  For his second lesson, Mr Dube distributed newspapers to every student and instructed us to read them.  After fifteen minutes he requested all those who had come across new words to write them on the board; almost all complied because we’d come across words that were new to us.  He then started explaining and giving the meaning of each word.  He could quote from the Chambers Dictionary — even citing the page number!  Mr Dube also sang us Shakespeare quotations; he knew and could quote from a huge number of novels.  It was inspiring; not just for me as a student, but for my journey towards becoming a literature teacher.” 

These words from a Zimbabwean teacher whom we recently invited to tell us what it is like to teach in Zimbabwe. Although the education system in Zimbabwe is currently under pressure, it is often regarded the best in Africa – built on foundations like strong teacher training programmes and respect for the profession, with good monitoring and discipline in the schools. There are thus many aspects to mention (and she does later on), but I love that the first thing this teacher thinks important to share, is being inspired herself as a pupil by a teacher and specifically by his love for reading. Currently she is teaching at what she says is one of the best boarding schools in the Southern African region (a public school in Zimbabwe), she has a Master’s Degree, and she is no doubt inspiring a new generation of pupils, not only to love reading, but to be people who deeply care and give of themselves: “This work is demanding, but I enjoy it – it has to do with who you are.  It has become part of me.” 

Reading is the foundation for learning, which is core, but it also grows us as people, it helps to develop our empathy for others, it nurtures our sense of imagination and ability to think critically and in that way, it enhances our freedom – it will open-up our life possibilities and options significantly, in big and small ways.  When we have a culture of reading as a society, it strengthens us as a group and it is the kind of strength that keeps on building on itself, every aspect that is improved by it, improves another thing and another and so forth until you have cultivated a powerful people and a strong economy.

It is National Book Week (3 to 9 September in 2018), a campaign by the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture.  In 2017 SABDC released the findings of a nationally representative survey (part-funded by DGMT), into the reading behaviour of adult South Africans in which 4 000 adults (16 years and older) participated.  In a comprehensive report, which you can access here, the emerging picture of our reading culture as South Africans is painted.  If you have not read it yet, some of it won’t surprise you, we know that inequality and economics matter when it comes to who owns and who reads books.  Some of it is encouraging, for example, there are 1.1 million new book readers in 2016 compared to 2006.  And some of it is both worrying and sad: most children in South Africa never hear their parents read them a story – only one out of every three parents or caregivers read to their children.  We thought it might be helpful to pull some key statistics from this report together to see if we can create a one-page snapshot of our reading culture in South Africa.  Have a look and download below.

As I mentioned, some aspects of our reading culture are hardly surprising, given our context.  Even the fact that we watch more television than we read cannot be completely unexpected.  However, where I had to go back and read twice to make sure that I did not misread the report, was on the attitudes about reading.  Only 5% of parents or caregivers agree that reading to children before they can read helps them to learn?  Only half of us agree that reading increases knowledge?  Only a third of us agree that everyone should be able to read?!

To all of you who think that is crazy, just thinking of the advantages and joy that books and reading have brought into your life: It is time to spread your love of reading, share your passion -be inspirational like Mr Dube.  A few years ago we made a video of some inspiring individuals who started small local initiatives to read to children and one of them said such a profound thing about a love of reading: “A present that you can give to anyone, you cannot buy it, but you can give”.  We all received it as a gift, we who are enjoying the advantages of it should feel morally obliged to also give it to others around us.  So, show your excitement, tell people about the books you read; buy people books as gifts – in their home languages if they would like it; start book clubs; support literacy organisations like Fundza, Nal’ibali and Wordworks; and most importantly, read with children.

Here is the 7-minute video referred to above – it is fun and inspiring, guaranteed to lift your spirits, have a look!