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THE STATE OF A READING/WRITING NATION

Address at the opening of the South African Book Fair, 8 September 2017

Zakes Mda

Thanks to the South African Book Development Council for inviting me to make a few

remarks on the state of a reading and writing nation, and to participate in other events of

the South African Book Fair, which they view as an important mechanism for

transformation within the book sector; a platform for inclusive celebration of books and

literature. It is a celebration firstly of a culture of reading, and secondly a culture of

writing. The latter can only flow from the former.

By a culture of reading I mean an environment where we have embraced the habit

of reading in our personal lives and are intensely engaged with the written word in its

diverse forms. Reading becomes a culture when it has been internalized into a way of life,

and has become a popular form of family entertainment.

Proficiency in reading and writing does not necessarily amount to reading as a

cultural practice. There are many South Africans who have not read a single book since

leaving high school or university ten years ago. They have the ability, but do not care to

use it because reading is not part of their way of life. A culture of reading produces an

engaged and motivated reader who is not reading for utilitarian purposes; for instance,

to pass an exam, to prepare and present a report to the boss or to a prospective client, to

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secure employment, and a myriad other situations that may compel us to read. We are

talking here of reading for pleasure, for edification, for entertainment, and for fulfillment.

A culture of reading can be cultivated at any age, though like all habits, good and

bad, it is best instilled early in childhood. This is difficult for many South Africans. The

National Survey into the Reading and Book-reading Behavior of Adult South Africans 2016

commissioned by the South African Book Development Council found that 60% of our

people are living in households without a single book. It further notes the obvious, that

poorer households with lower levels of education are less likely to have books in their

homes. Only 5% of adults with children in their home read to their children.

South African children from the more comfortable classes – a small percentage of

the population – have the fortune of being born into a reading culture. They are more

likely than not to adopt it for themselves and advance it.

I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by books, my father being a teacher of

literature, but later a lawyer. My passion for reading began with comic books, a genre

that I continue to devour with relish to this day. There was no intrusion of television those

days, so reading became the predominant family entertainment. The first full-length

adult book that I read when I was eight or nine was Ingqumbo Yeminyanya, an isiXhosa

novel by A.C. Jordan. Later, Sesotho novels by such authors as J.J. Machobane, Thomas

Mofolo and the Khaketlas shaped my literary worldview with their breathtaking

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treatment of the landscape, the importance of setting, the romance and nostalgia of place,

the domaine perdu.

It therefore saddens me that today literature in indigenous African languages is so

marginalized that we can only conceive of a culture of reading in English. This is not

because books in indigenous languages do not exist. Every year new books are published

in most of the languages of South Africa, in addition to the classics in languages such as

isiXhosa, Sesotho and isiZulu that have had a literary tradition dating from the 1800s.

The problem lies with book distribution rather than the book publishing sector. You may

go to any of our major bookstores chains today, say Exclusive Books or CNA, and ask for

the latest Sesotho novel by Nhlanhla Maake, a Setswana novel by Sabata-Mpho Mokae

or an isiXhosa novel by Ncedile Saule, and the likelihood is that you will not find it in

stock. It is a Catch 22 situation because the bookstores will tell you they don’t stock such

novels because no one buys them, but the readers will tell you they don’t buy them

because they are not in stock.

This is a cumulative result of the marginalization of indigenous languages in South

Africa today in all spheres of life. Our whole democracy is conducted mostly in English,

a language understood and used by a minority of South Africans. Millions who don’t

speak or read the language are left out. They cannot be full participants in our democracy

when they are not informed participants. Of course, we know that low information

voters are a boon to the ruling elite in Africa. Without the critical awareness that is

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brought about by a culture of reading, they cannot hold the ruling elite accountable. They

live in a culture of silence, and that benefits the corrupt rulers while it disadvantages the

nation.

Parliament itself pays only lip service to indigenous languages and privileges

English, as honorable members childishly ridicule those who break the Queen’s language

in their shoddy speeches. One wonders why they don’t present these speeches in their

own languages as Afrikaner members proudly do. Infantile giggles and titters and howls

become the order of the day. A grammatical mistake becomes a joke that will be repeated

for that whole session. The message is clear: you do not belong in these august halls if

you are not proficient in English.

Obviously, fluency in English is a measure of intelligence in our colonized minds.

In this kind of environment where indigenous languages are disrespected and despised

even by their own speakers we would not expect bookstores to stock books in them.

Cultures evolve; they are acquired and discarded as per need. I remember in my

teens how it was fashionable to read James Hadley Chase and Peter Cheney. Every

township youth of my generation read these authors. We exchanged books and competed

on who had read the most titles. We awaited the release of a new title with eagerness.

Even those who came from homes that had no culture of reading, the equivalents of

today’s 60 percenters living in households that do not have a single book, were not left

out. To become part of the conversation you had to read these authors. Or Mills and Boon

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for some girls. From this pulp fiction, a new culture of reading was cultivated. Those

teenagers grew up to be great readers of books – of literary fiction and non-fiction. Some

of them became writers of note.

Talking of pulp fiction, this reminds me of how the Onitsha Market Literature in

the 1950s and 60s took Nigeria by storm and cultivated new readers among the neo-

literates and semi-literates. These were books and pamphlets, mostly fiction but also self-

help, written in many varieties of English including pidgin and creole, that were so

popular that everywhere you went, in buses and taxies, in bars and waiting rooms, even

in offices under the desk, people would be reading these books. Many of those readers

graduated to reading Achebe and Soyinka, and other masterpieces of world literature.

Onitsha played a significant role in making Nigerians the lovers of books they are today,

because love of books comes with environmental conditioning.

The Nollywood you see today follows the DIY attitude established by Onitsha. It

however killed Onitsha literature because many readers migrated to movies-on-video. It

is the same effect that television had on our township reading culture. The moving image

was deemed superior to static words.

And yet words create worlds much more effectively than the moving image will

ever do. As a reader, you re-create with your imagination; you become a co-creator with

the author as you convert in your mind words into images, and as you complete what

has been omitted, since no story will ever tell you everything. Good stories thrive on

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omission and restraint. Film and television, on the other hand, give you worlds that have

been fully created by others – ready-made worlds. You, the viewer, are therefore not part

of the creative process; you are a mere consumer of someone else’s creation.

Electronic media are an essential innovation and cannot be wished away. They

serve an important function. But the consumption of electronic media should not be at

the expense of book-reading. These media, after all, are ephemeral. The book, on the other

hand, is patient. It allows you to read, pause, consider, and re-read once more. Book-

reading by its nature, therefore, encourages critical thinking.

Electronic media, however, are not the enemy some people tend to think they are.

They may compete with books for our leisure time or undermine reading as an

institution, but they can be used to cultivate and enhance book-reading. It is a crying

shame that our national broadcaster doesn’t have programs in its various platforms

dedicated to book-reading where books are reviewed for all ages, discussed, competitions

held on book-reading, and activities of book clubs covered. Imagine how such programs

would make book-reading trendy, as they would be hosted not by dowdy professors and

critics but by peers of the target audience.

Social media has taken the lead from broadcast media in this regard. There are

many YouTube channels by individuals and by informal reading groups that feature

book reviews. Some of these become so popular and garner so many “views” that they

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do not only spread the book-reading message but also earn the channel owners a

livelihood.

We often hear that social media have created a lonely dislocated generation. This

may be correct as these media encourage individualism and antisocial behavior. For

instance, they may isolate families even at dinner table where each member is focused on

his or her gadget instead of homely and love-filled conversation. One of my daughters

invited me for dinner at a restaurant the other day, and as soon as we sat down she took

out her smartphone and started thumbing it intently. I don’t think she understood what

my problem was when I told her that next time she should invite her smartphone to

dinner and leave me alone.

In my experience, instead of isolating one from community, social media have

broadened the community and globalized it. Many people who first met on Facebook or

Twitter have established friendships that extend beyond the tiny smartphone screen into

real-life. They have flown from Mongolia to visit new friends in Bloemfontein. Of course,

a broader community multiplies the dangers of predators and perverts. But we deal with

these dangers in life even without social media.

I am more interested in the benefits that already flow from these media. Even

though some of them have contributed to the short attention span of this generation –

with their 140 characters, brief videos, Vines and even briefer gifs – some of them are

being used effectively to enhance book-reading. A lot of the young people who read my

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books do so because they saw peers posting their covers, Facebragging and

humblebragging on Twitter about what they enjoyed or hated in them. Books then

become an important topic of discussion, and those who do not want to be left out read

them as well so that they may be part of that “woke” and “lit” conversation. Others have

formalized the cultivation of book-reading by establishing book clubs on Twitter. I am

thinking here of such media personalities as Tebogo Ditshego with his @ReadaBookSA

whose followers view book-reading as a badge of smartness and suavity. Indeed, their

slogan is #IntellectualSwag.

Instead of the distrust and disdain of information technology shared by many

quintessential book readers, we can marry the two. An interesting program that is

performing wonders in cultivating a culture of reading is run by Palesa Morudi and her

partners in Cape Town. Called Cover2Cover Books it was established in 2010 as a social

enterprise to fill a gap in the publishing market – namely, the millions of teenagers living

in South African townships not serviced with books. Besides its conventional book

publishing activities for young readers and the trade market, I am fascinated most by

their harnessing popular technology through their FunDza Literacy Trust to grow a

community of readers. Stories serialized on their mobisite are accessed via cellphones by

more than sixty thousand readers spread throughout South Africa. This is interactive

reading as readers exchange views on the stories. Later, some of this fiction is published

as hardcopy books. Some of these readers write their own stories that are circulated in

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the same manner. The program does not only create new readers, but new writers as well.

It is a nation-wide book club mediated by ordinary basic cellphones.

There are book clubs throughout South Africa, and the wonderful thing about

them is that they were not imposed from the top by some official or government structure

but emerge from the grassroots, initiated by community members themselves. Those of

us who are writers are occasionally invited to such places as Qwaqwa or Butterworth

whenever the book club is discussing our books and we happen to be available.

What will strike you about the informal reading circles and book clubs is that they

are predominantly female. On rare occasions, you find one or two men here and there.

Barbara Sicherman observes that literature, particularly fiction, has been crucial in the

construction of female identity. She writes:

Developmental psychologists suggest that stories are so appealing because they relate to
issues in readers’ lives in emotionally powerful ways…At all ages women and girls read
more fiction than do boys and men. This was true in the late nineteenth century as it is
today. The reason for this predilection have yet to be fully explored; among those
advanced are women’s socialization to be attentive to the emotions of others and their
need to find satisfactions unavailable in other ways.”1
Perhaps we need research of our own here on why men don’t join book clubs and

what can be done to socialize them into a culture of reading. This is of utmost importance

to me because I see it as the only way to teach men to be in touch with their emotions and

to humanize them out of patriarchal values. It does not matter to me if they decide to

1
Sicherman, Barbara. How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 2010. page 2

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form their own male book clubs if that is what makes them feel safe and comfortable, as

long as they get to read books, especially fiction which inherently deals with interiorities,

feelings and emotions in addition to critiquing social and political structures. After all

women have found agency in spaces occupied by women. I have observed in many book

clubs I have attended in South Africa that women, without being schooled in feminist

theory or critical theory, automatically take a feminist perspective in their discussions,

and formulate their own language of resistance in their interpretation of the books they

read.

According to the South African Book Development study that I mentioned, the

library tops the list of places where adult South Africans prefer to obtain their books. One

in four adult South Africans visits the library. The study however is silent on the

frequency of these visits. Is it one in four every week, every year, in their lifetime? Book

buying is crucial, for it sustains the business of writing. But in a poor country like ours

we need a library in every town, every township, every village. We need mobile libraries

that will reach even the remotest of places.

Finally: people don't only read for literary edification. There are many kinds of

readers out there. That is why I celebrate the emergence of celebrity biographies in

today’s South Africa. Most readers of celebrity biographies do not aspire to a literary

culture, they don’t desire to be ennobled by the book, they do not consciously or overtly

hope to gain insight into the human condition; they are not searching for timeless truths;

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they are not looking for proficiency with words. Celebrity books create their own

readership. They convert non-book-readers into readers. Normally (not in all instances)

these are not people who would also read Hear Me Alone by Thando Mgqolozana or The

Yearning by Mohale Mashigo or Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo. They are not

looking for a great turn of phrase or lyrical prose. They are reading to satisfy their inner-

Shwashwi. Such books, of course, have no longevity. But the transformative possibilities

of reading may see these readers graduate to more quality books.

Celebrity books bring a lot of money to publishers and some want to churn them

out of the conveyer belt without proper editing, disrespecting these new and young

readers because they think they have no discernment. But I must stress that poor

editing is the bane of South African books generally, even so-called quality fiction and

non-fiction by reputed publishers. Ask book-page editors and reviewers what they go

through reading our careless books. Charl Blignaut of City Press writes,

I think publishing is in a bit of a crisis as corners are cut and editors and proofreaders
seem to be where the pinch is felt. In my experience, it started almost two years ago
when a major publisher released one of their biggest books of the year [we won’t
mention it here] my eyes popped when I saw the many mistakes littering the first
edition.2

He mentions many other instances where this shoddiness has continued

unabated, in some cases for award-winning books published by our major publishers

who are multinational corporations.

2
Blignaut, Charl. Email Interview. August 7, 2017

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Publishers in South Africa are letting reader and writer down, and disrespecting

them. Such shoddiness will be the death of the book. Already fears have been expressed

in many quarters that the book has no future. Some talk of the pending demise of reading

and writing itself, as new ways of transferring knowledge and enjoyment from one

source to another are developed. In such a dystopia reading and writing will revert to

the specialized skill it used to be in the Middle Ages, where only monks were empowered

with literacy and literary ability, or in the old Soninke civilizations of Gana (which also

went by the various names of Dierra, Agada and Silla after each incarnation as narrated

in the epic Dausi, Gassire’s Lute) located between the Senegal and the Niger Rivers in the

fourth century AD (or CE, if you prefer). In that pre-colonial African civilization writing

and reading were left to the women who used the Taffinigh script, while men went to

joust in duels and fight wars or were just being obnoxious to their neighbors, the Tuaregs

and the Fulani.

Let me end by emphasizing that cultures reproduce themselves. A reading culture

once cultivated produces more readers and more readers produce more writers, who

then in turn produce more readers. It all begins with a seed.

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