South Africa has a weak culture of reading and writing and while this is reflected in the country’s many social ills, it also impacts on building a democratic social justice movement.
The aims of the Jozi Book Fair (JBF) is to build a strong and diverse culture of reading and writing through working with various constituencies such as readers, writers, libraries, schools and small publishers and indigenous language publishers and to engage the public domain. The fourth JBF was held at Museum Africa in Newtown, on 27-28 October. Initially the JBF was held immediately after the Khanya Winter School in early August, as it is part of the College’s movement building work. The decision to shift the JBF to October was a practical consideration to ensure more effective organising and mobilising of constituencies.
Theme and Partners
This year, the JBF decided to have a thematic focus that would facilitate critical engagement of the issues pertinent to developing a reading and writing culture, and also engage key constituents in that sector more actively. The theme of the JBF 2012 was ‘Literacy: reading the word and mthe world’. In pursuance of this aim, the JBF partnered with organisations who have been involved in educational and literacy work for many years, namely DVV International, based in Cape Town; the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, based at the University of Johannesburg; Tembaletu Trust, an NGO that has worked on litearcy for many years and is based in Pietermaritzburg; Project Literacy, based in Pretoria, and the Gauteng Adult Education Department.
Conference on Literacy
A pre-JBF Conference was held on 26 October on the theme of the JBF, at the House of Movements. The conference assessed the state of the literacy movement
historically and currently in South Africa and Southern Africa.The conference was attended by about 55 people from South Africa and Southern Africa. The keynote address, by Professor Emeritus John Aitchison, the antiapartheid activist and educator, highlighted in particular the crisis of literacy as a result of the closure of teacher training institutions and the specific skills needed to teach reading skills.
The conference included panel discussions by different presenters and topics such as:
• Where are we now with Literacy in South Africa: Professor John Aitchison
• The State of the Literacy Movement in Southern Africa: Richard Rangiah
• Crisis in Education in South Africa Today: Salim Vally
• Literacy and the Children’s Movement in South Africa: Marcus Solomon
• Literacy and the Funding Crisis: Andrew Miller
• Challenges for Librarians in South Africa: Eva Rampa
• Literacy and Women in South Africa: Sharon Groenmeyer
• Literacy: “Run home to read” Project: Andrew Miller
The general view from both the discussants and participants was that there is a real crisis in the education system in South Africa and that the failures of the education system are blamed on the victims themselves. Yet, training is poor as many teacher training colleges have closed. On the whole, the schools are failing collectively. In South Africa, about five million young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 cannot read and write; and the widespread poverty in South Africa affects children’s learning and reading capacity. Funding problems were also identified as a key contributor to the challenges faced in the education system. Before democracy, there were many organisations involved in education, but after democracy, NGOs were side-lined and funding was withdrawn. Instead, donors focused on directly supporting the government to provide education.
With regards to libraries, these remain a scarce resource. There are few libraries in townships and only 5% of schools have libraries. Libraries also lack funds to buy books as this is often not a priority for municipalities.
The Conference also discussed the need to strengthen and rebuild the literacy movement in South Africa as a whole. There is also the need to organise our own publishing houses that can facilitate the production and affordable access to literature in english and indigenous languages as the big publishing houses publish known authors, and are oriented to making profits.
Assessment of 4th JBF Event
The fair was extremely well attended, with just over 2 000 people attending the fair. On the first day, 1 610 adults attended (paying a nominal fee of R10 each). All children, teenagers and young adults attended the fair free of charge. However, the second day, a Sunday, was not well attended (only 400 people). The JBF team will review holding the fair on Sundays. In addition, 32 activists attended the pre-JBF seminar on the Arab Spring on 24 October, hosted by one of the guests of the fair, Professor Helmi Sharawi.
The JBF successfully brought together its target audience of literacy organisations, local authors, poets, children, youth, young adults, students, schools in the inner city, libraries, small and indigenous publishers, academics, communities, and the broader public. While we set up special programmes to promote reading and writing for teachers and librarians, their attendance was modest at these specific events. There is a need to promote and encourage the need for self education as opposed to a focus on ‘overtime payment’, a challenge that affects building a reading culture in South Africa.
Previously volunteers provided logistical support for the fair. This year, Tsohang Batjha (Arise Youth) and the JBF reading groups among teenagers, provide this support. While the volunteer-training needs improvement, the initiative to use reading groups deepens ownership of the fair.
The JBF marketing approach is based on a strong programme of events that engages specific constituencies and the general public. There is enormous goodwill from different quarters for the aims of the JBF and the marketing in general was done cost effectively. This included: graffiti murals; the strategic distribution of flyers; internet publicity and social media, with the JBF Facebook page being particularly active and engaging; and adverts were left at restaurants and the hotels in Braamfontein and Melville. A number of strategic mainstream interventions on radio (4), television (2) and print media (5) also provided support in the runup to the JBF.
A key aspect of the JBF is the presence of exhibitor stalls that provide exhibitions on their books, the latest publishing paraphernalia, and promotions. Over the past three years, exhibitors have been small and indigenous publishers, bookshops, and NGOs who produce publications. This is consistent with the JBF’s orientation and a special effort is made to ensure that it is not monopolised by the big publishers. For this reason, prices for stall exhibitions are kept low. In total we had 28 exhibitors including five literacy organisations, 11 small publishers, one large publisher, five NGOs, and three literary/cultural organisations. The low participation of literacy organisations is seemingly consistent with the nature of the sector currently. The challenge is to increase the number of exhibitors for the JBF.
Guests of the Book Fair
Every year the JBF hosts a ‘Guest of the Book Fair’, who is someone who promotes the aims of the fair through their work and activism. This year, we had two acclaimed ‘Guests’, both of them social activists. The local guest was author, Lauretta Ngcobo, and our international guest was Professor Helmi Sharawy from Egypt. Ngcobo’s latest book, Prodigal Daughters, launched at the fair, includes reflections by South African women on their experience of exile. Sharawy was an aide to President Nasser of Egypt, in charge of supporting and working with the liberation movements in Africa.
The Guests raised the profile of the Fair publicly and provided for interesting debates on, amongst others, the role of African leaders today, the role and participation of women in the liberation struggles in Africa, the relevance of Frantz Fanon for Africa today, literature and women, the Arab Spring and the publishing industry.
The programme of 35 activities at the JBF was oriented to key constituencies: teenagers/youth, children, the more discerning citizen, activists and the general public. The successful children’s programme included semi-structured and planned events (face painting to storytelling and music) as was mindful to also give children time to play and engage each other. The programme for youth/young adults was geared to stimulate their interest and expose teens to literature, art and drama through engaging them in fun and interesting ways. The youth also engaged in open mic poetry that was self-organised, provocative and spellbinding. A range of discussions on current issues, from Mangaung to the state of literacy in South Africa, gave rise to passionate debates. The discussion on Marikana, for instance, was a particular highlight, drawing together an audience of 170 people, and speakers including mineworkers, activists and journalists. The debates and discussions confirmed the significance of the issues and very often participants continued their discussions even after the allocated time.
Marikana Travelling Photo Exhibition
A Photo Exhibition on the Marikana massacre was held at the JBF, drawing on the work and generosity of Pulitzer Prize-winner, Greg Marinovich, and also City Press photographers. The exhibition consists of 34 photographs. Marinovich donated 20 photos to Khanya College and City Press granted us the use of 14 photos. The Khanya College staff collectively contributed to finance the printing of the photos. The Marikana Photo Exhibition is available as a travelling exhibition to deepen awareness and assist in movement building.
The JBF was successful in promoting a culture of reading and writing and mobilising and raising awareness for social change within the public domain, despite a relatively small budget. The JBF needs to build on the alliances and the goodwill that exists at the beginning of the year. That is, the work that occurs before and after the Fair will assist to deepen and root the culture of reading and writing and mobilise every constituency in society from the schools to the media and general public.