South Africa: The new struggle: one school, one library, one librarian

African Charter Article# 17: Every individual shall have the right to education, cultural life, and the promotion and protection of values.

Summary & Comment: As South Africa prepared to welcome the world to the World Cup for football, school children marched peacefully through the centre of Cape Town asking for books. Fewer than 7% of South African schools have a functioning library. The authors of the article, Graeme Bloch and Njabulo S Ndebele ask why pupils must beg the government for what is rightly theirs. JDN

On Human Rights Day, March 21, a Sunday, 10000 high school pupils marched through the centre of Cape Town in school uniform. They were children, predominantly of working-class origins, from all over the Western Cape, rural and urban, black and white. Not a rock or a bottle was thrown and they dispersed peacefully to the trains that had been arranged to take them home. The children were marching for books. In 2010, when we have built fine football stadiums across the country and will undoubtedly run an organised and inspiring World Cup, children were marching under the same banner as in 1976: Equal Education.

Sixteen years after democracy, our young people are calling for schools that work, for places where they may study and for materials that will help them read and learn. As the organisation Equal Education points out, fewer than 7% of schools in South Africa have a functioning library. Perhaps 21% have some kind of structure called a reading room, but these are usually used for classrooms, are seldom stocked properly and do not have a library professional in charge to ensure that the right books are there and that they are used properly. The lack of libraries compounds the many problems, such as teachers’ poor subject knowledge and poor access to textbooks, that plague our schooling system. These factors combine to m ake our reading outcomes, at all grade levels, among the worst in Africa.

As Equal Education says: “The provision of a school library is not a luxury, but a necessity … a school library on its own remains insufficient – for a school library to be at its most productive, its resources must be managed by a qualified librarian.” Among all the other needs in teaching, a school library can help improve performance by between 10% and 20%. This campaign deserves our support. We should all raise an angry, but focused, voice. There are two reasons: the first is the impact of libraries on reading; the second is giving pupils access to a safe space to study, given a hectic township and home life. Inequalities in access to books resound across the system, reinforce social inequalities and hold us back as a developing nation from achieving outcomes or utilising the human talents with which we are blessed.

Books and a love of reading are key drivers of succe ssful education. For this reason alone, the campaign for one school, one library, one librarian must get our active support. Perhaps more importantly is that young people themselves are making this demand. On the same day the pupils marched, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe called on South Africans not to burn libraries to get attention. Yet, in one service protest last year in Siyathemba, Mpumulanga, young people destroyed the municipal library, where many students spend their time. The next day, the government was there to ask what could be done.

Outside the Jub Jub bail hearing, angry students demonstrated for four days during school time, and Cosas, the high school organisation, threatened to meet police with rocks and petrol bombs. Only a strong community response and the rallying of parents calmed them down. The Equal Education students, by contrast, had to fight to be heard and still do not have a plan from the government on how their needs will be addres sed. The march was a peaceful mass demonstration. Its discipline and the lack of any aggression were a tribute to the pupils of Cape Town. Young people are learning to take their lives into their own hands and to act for their goals. In an inspiring message, they are telling us that they will not stand by while an education system fails them.

With thousands of marshals to keep the peace, with the government present, led by basic education director-general Bobby Soobrayan, they announced that principled activism is not dead among young people. They are concerned about their future. By coming to town, they showed that they will not be confined to ghettoes of inequality or hide away unseen, but will claim the streets of the city as the stage on which to act. Led in an inclusive and engaging way, they called on the citizens of the city and country to hear their pleas. They have run an entirely sophisticated campaign. They have written articles in newspapers based on exte nsive research. They have come to meetings of academics at the University of the Western Cape to argue their case. They have drawn professional librarians to their cause and have called on middle classes, black and white, to join them.

On Thursday, the Development Bank of Southern Africa had a meeting with Yoliswa Dwane of Equal Education, government officials and business to discuss a response. This is a campaign not only for those who do not have, but for all of us. The students have mobilised and have shown in a disciplined and huge march that their cause has support and that they are prepared to act to achieve their goals. It is not hard to begin to address their needs.

Firstly, there is the goodwill of corporates and ordinary citizens. Equal Education (like other organisations such as Biblionef or Rotary) has been collecting books from the public and asking us to help stock libraries with our old books. They have organised read-ins and thus asked for olde r citizens, for experienced grannies with skills, to help inspire our young, helping them to know the pleasure of the book. Equal Education has come up with architectural designs for what a school library could look like. It has done detailed costing of buildings and materials to stock a library, and of the salaries of employees at each public school.

The total cost of about 19808 school libraries is R7.9-billion. It cost us over R13.6-billion to build the football stadiums for the World Cup. Spread over 10 years, functional school libraries could cost just R2.2-billion annually, only 1.6% of the Department of Education’s annual budget. This does not even require creative funding models; it requires the political will to set aside the funds and to make school libraries work.

As one pupil said: “Having a library is not a favour that the government gives us, it is our right. My parents voted. I want their vote to be heard. We are marching, but we have done this before. Why must we shout for what we need?” It is not just that the cost of functioning libraries is entirely affordable. It is not just that the pupils have drawn to our attention their needs in an entirely disciplined and peaceful way. When pupils ask in this way, it is incumbent on us to hear. Or are we asking them to meet us with fire and petrol bombs before we listen and respond?

The question is not simply about whether we can afford school libraries, with books and a professional librarian. Can we afford the cost of failing a generation and of not helping our young people to read when this simple request is all they are making? We must rally around to help our children read at the appropriate levels, to love books and explore knowledge, and to help carve a future as a learning nation. A learning nation needs to be a successful one as well. We should remember that the failure of an education system over a long time might threaten the sustainability of our entire society. A nation that is unable to consistently transmit new and proven knowledge, skills, practices and values from one generation of citizens to another will soon run aground.

“One School, One Library, One Librarian” is a simple demand with profound implications. In meeting this demand, we ensure the sustainability of our democracy. The call of young South Africans through the Equal Education campaign is to be left a legacy of citizenship that assures them a future. It is an awesome responsibility for adult South Africans to heed the call of their children.

Action on behalf of justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.
Justice in the World – 1971 Synod of Bishops