Reading writes new life chapters
Council aims to give more South Africans access to the power of books, writes Lesley Stones
A book, the way Elitha van der Sandt describes it, is the gateway to a magical future; a place of big dreams and glorious possibilities, where even a girl from Mitchells Plain can rise to become a CEO.
Van der Sandt was that girl from the township, led out of it on a path paved by the education and inspiration she found in literature to become CEO of the South African Book Development Council.
Part of her job is to make sure that books give millions of other children the same horizon-opening opportunities.
"I’m from Mitchells Plain – I come from the worst conditions possible and I know the conditions that 80% of the population comes from," she says.
"A book allows you to imagine a different world, travel to different places, so you know the circumstances you find yourself in don’t have to stay that way. You are able to see more."
A new study for the council shows that only 14% of South Africans are committed book readers. Van der Sandt can’t say how that compares with more developed nations, as other countries do not conduct such studies, but the far higher number of books sold in other countries suggests their percentage of readers is far higher.
The council is an umbrella body for the publishing industry with members including associations for book sellers, publishers, authors, editors, designers, translators and libraries. Their collective objective is to increase the accessibility of books by producing the right product at the right price, stocking it in the right places and promoting it effectively.
One major goal for the council is to see more books published in African languages, since only 2% of leisure titles appear in indigenous languages
Van der Sandt didn’t work up to the position of CEO through the book trade. She has a business degree and a background in social development and previously worked in health, land reform and education.
That gives her impartial eyes a good sense of how white the publishing industry remains in a country in which illiteracy and poor education is holding back much of the population.
One major goal for the council is to see more books published in African languages, since only 2% of leisure titles appear in indigenous languages.
Publishers won’t produce books that not enough people are buying, yet black consumers complain that there are no African language books to buy. The council is trying to break that vicious circle by giving subsidies to black-focused publishers to share the risk of printing more copies.
The council’s Indigenous Languages Publishing Programme uses funds from the National Lotteries Commission and the National Arts Council for those subsidies. Over the years, it has raised about R3m to help create 40 titles with a total print run of 70,000 copies.
That’s obviously not enough, says Van der Sandt. "It needs to be funded by the government, but books are not one of its national priorities, so it never gets funded.
"I think the most pressing need for everyone in this country is that books need to be seen as a priority by the government to get more people reading."
She says books aren’t merely about entertainment or leisure — they’re essential for empowerment. Having as few as 20 books in a home has a significant effect in propelling a child to higher levels of education, and children who read are better equipped to transcend the limitations imposed by the poor education of their parents and tough economic circumstances.
"When you are reading books, it means you are more empowered — your imagination gets more developed because it’s not like the TV.
You have to build pictures in your mind so the connections are made," she says.
"You get introduced to different ways of solving problems and participate in life in a more informed way because you have access to different thinking."
Books broaden people’s knowledge and help them to find solutions to their problems rather than waiting for handouts, Van der Sandt says.
"Communities become self-reliant and start using their own resources to solve their problems and take initiatives and see that something is wrong and change it. Books give you that because they are empowering."
As a child, she was taken to the library by an adult and her father encouraged her to read.
"I remember a book that was about someone like me who had made a better life, so I was inspired that this person was from the same community as I am," she remembers. "It’s important that black people write and capture their own stories in a way that only they can."
Communities become self-reliant and start using their own resources to solve their problems and take initiatives and see that something is wrong and change it. Books give you that because they are empowering
That ability for writers to inspire and influence others from a lowly background will come to the fore during National Book Week in September, a project run by the council with events held in communities throughout the country.
"National Book Week is a campaign to promote reading to those who are not engaging with books in a committed way," says Van der Sandt.
Bookshops will run "buy a book" schemes where you can buy an appropriate book for R20 and put it in a donation box.
"We are very specific about the type of books we take into the communities," she says.
White suburbanites might enjoy having a glass of wine as they listen to an author speak, but people who haven’t engaged with books before can’t get into that, she says. Instead, the council stages activities such as
storytelling in the vernacular, sometimes by authors or television personalities.
"Everybody loves stories and if you get into stories you will get into books," Van der Sandt says.
The council also takes toy libraries for toddlers into communities, as playing with educational toys is a precursor to literacy. You can’t just hope that children will pick up a book of their own volition, she says.
"It’s easy to just promote children’s literature, but there’s always adult mediation in some way, like an adult taking you to the library or a teacher giving you a book, so you have to have an integrated approach."
That’s a problem in SA because apartheid deliberately denied many of today’s adults that crucial access to books.
"Because of our past, adults have been excluded from books, so we are working with gogos and aunties in the communities to introduce them to books in a different way," says Van der Sandt.
"You have to get adults to read and to value books because schools and children can’t ride any higher than the community from where they come."