A report on the activities of READ, a voluntary organisation working in black schools and colleges
In line with the policy of apartheid African, or black, education in South Africa is segregated by the state and suffers from a long history of neglect and discrimination. This has resulted in gross disparities between the educational experience of black children and white children. Per capita expenditure by the state on black education is still approximately only one tenth of that for whites. An immediate consequence of this is an inadequate supply of books and materials in African schools. In addition, because compulsory education for black children was introduced relatively recently, a large proportion of the parent population is illiterate and many school children come from homes without books, magazines or newspapers. Book buying and reading are not common features of African family life; in Soweto (the complex of African townships near Johannesburg) which has a population of over two million there is not a single bookshop worth the name.
For many reasons there is a high drop-out rate in African schools with approximately three quarters of pupils leaving before the secondary level, and many of these before they have achieved functional literacy in any language. English is the medium of instruction most favoured by Africans, especially by those staying on in education. This is usually a second language for them and the shortage of books and teaching material in English is a major hindrance to them.
Out of this gloomy situation have come a number of voluntary efforts vigorously attempting to reduce the enormous discrepancies in the quality of education available to the different race groups in South Africa. One of these initiatives, known as READ, addresses itself particularly (as its name implies) to the development of reading among African children by providing suitable material in English to compensate for the paucity of the state’s provision.
READ began with Cynthia Hugo, a librarian at St John’s College in Johannesburg. She persuaded individual businessmen and companies to finance the purchase of books for school libraries in Soweto. Since its inception READ has gained the sponsorship of more than 300 companies and individuals whose donations in cash or in kind total approximately three million Rand (the equivalent of £7½ million). READ now operates through a national committee and a series of regional committees involving more than 100 committee members. It has grown phenomenally over the past five years. Its activities include:
- the provision of libraries for more than 300 schools and colleges throughout the country
- the development of a portable box library system for rural schools and primary schools, both urban and rural, where a suitable room to house a library is not available
- the development of training courses for teachers inter alia in basic librarianship (to date these courses have been attended by more than 700 African teachers)
- the organisation of conferences on literacy and librarianship
- the compilation of lists of books found to be most suitable in stimulating reading in the black community
- the identification of suitable and available reading matter in the technical and commercial fields and in maths and science
- the establishment of careers guidance reference sections in African school libraries
- the organisation of projects and competitions in science, biology, literature, art, drama and youth leadership
- the promotion of the Adopt-a-School programme. This is done in collaboration with the TEACH (Teach Every African Child) fund of the Johannesburg daily newspaper The Star, and with leading companies – notably those American firms which are signatories to the Sullivan Code on equal opportunities. The Adopt-a-School programme assists African schools to obtain funds and/or equipment, and seeks to establish lasting relationships between the schools and the donors. To date more than 250 schools have been involved in this programme.
These are commendable achievements but at a more general level any attempt to build up libraries in African schools faces the problem of a lack of suitable and relevant reading material in either the vernacular languages or in English. Like any children, South Africa’s black youngsters need to be able to relate at least some of the time to the characters and situations in the books they read. They cannot gain full enjoyment from their reading if they associate books only with children of another colour or culture or a country other than their own. To be really meaningful, reading must become an integral part of their lives, not merely a school-associated activity. This calls for more books by indigenous writers and artists, and although there are now attempts to help fill this need, by publishers like Ravan Press, it is a slow process.
The work of organisations like READ can represent only a mere scratching at the surface of the problem. Until such time as there is a major redistribution of the state’s provision in favour of black education however, this work is of great significance for those concerned with the quality of African community life in South Africa.