By JOHN Y. COLE
The link between democracy and reading was a theme for a study tour to South Africa led by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress last spring. "South Africa: A Journey to Promote Reading & Literacy" focused on reading and literacy promotion efforts currently under way in schools, libraries and educational institutions throughout South Africa and took place during the 10th anniversary year of the new South African democracy. Participants learned about the "new" South Africa directly from their South African counterparts, sharing ideas and experiences with people who also believe in the power of books, reading, literacy and libraries.
The South African Centre for the Book, a unit of the National Library of South Africa, helped organize the visit from May 25 to June 4 in cooperation with Alterra Global Education Initiatives, an organization that specializes in educational and professional exchanges between South Africa and the United States.
The trip co-leaders, who shared responsibility for the professional planning and programming, were Judith R. Casey, an educator, board member of the Colorado Center for the Book and president of the Colorado Chapter of the International Reading Association (CCIRA), and this writer. Twenty-two teachers, librarians and reading promoters took part, including several associated with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress: program specialist Anne Boni; Catherine Gourley, national director of the center's Letters About Literature program; Jean Trebbi, former director of the Florida Center for the Book; Allen Cronenberg, former director of the Alabama Center for the Book, and Lucinda Munger, former director of the South Carolina Center for the Book. In addition, Peggy Flynn, Angelisa Hawes and Liane Rosenblatt from the District of Columbia Public Library were part of the group.
A highlight was the May 28 visit to the South African Centre for the Book in Cape Town, an organization whose creation was inspired by the activities of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
Delegates also visited the National Library of South Africa (Cape Town and Pretoria campuses); the Manyano Secondary School in the township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town; the 118-year-old Sea Point Primary School in Cape Town; and the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, where they heard a presentation by noted South African author and journalist Antjie Krog (best known for "Country of My Skull," a book about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Other visits were to the WesBank project, a program designed to support literacy and entrepreneurship in the township of WesBank, a low-income community near Cape Town. WesBank is supported by several staff members of the University of Western Cape School of Library Science; the South African Parliament, where the delegates watched part of a subcommittee meeting and met privately with an official from the Education Ministry; and the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, where they learned about the embassy's support of educational and literacy initiatives within South Africa. At the Tetelo Secondary School in the township of Soweto, the group was greeted by the entire student body and treated to an early morning outdoor performance by the school choir. And at the meeting with South African public television, they learned about the organization's many educational and reading promotion initiatives, including "Takalani Sesame Street."
Delegates also participated with South African colleagues in symposia on two topics of mutual interest: reading and literacy promotion in South Africa, chaired in Cape Town by Gabrielle Ritchie, program executive, National Library of South Africa-Cape Town; and the "digital divide" in South Africa and the rest of the world, chaired in Pretoria by the national librarian of South Africa, John K. Tsebe.
In addition to the professional program, participants visited major tourist sites throughout South Africa and nearly all of them opted for a three-day visit to the Bongani game lodge, located within the Mthethomusha private reserve in northeastern South Africa adjacent to Kruger National Park.
The delegation was impressed with the spirit and optimism of the many South Africans they met, who are moving ahead in spite of many obstacles—both economic and social. The trip was especially productive and beneficial for the Center for the Book, helping it strengthen its international partnerships with the South African Centre for the Book and the International Reading Association.
As a result of the trip, Lorato Trok, the coordinator of the South African Centre for the Book's award-winning First Words in Print project, will visit both Colorado and Washington in February 2005. On Feb. 8, she will help launch "Reading Africa," a Black History Month project to encourage reading about Africa in the District of Columbia public schools at events at both the Martin Luther King Memorial Library (Washington's central public library) and the Library of Congress. The event will be cosponsored by the Center for the Book, the D.C. Center for the Book and the D.C. Public Library.
The South African Centre for the Book
In 1989, 12 years after the creation of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the South African Library in Cape Town announced its plans to establish a South African Centre for the Book. That year Peter Coates, one of its senior staff members, visited the Library of Congress to learn more about the Center for the Book's activities. Plans were delayed as South Africa moved into a period of major change—in society, politics and government.
Piet Westra, director of the South African Library, met with this writer in 1994 to discuss changes in his initial concept of a South African Centre for the Book, including the need for private sector as well as government support. Westra reiterated his belief that national libraries had an obligation to reach out to the entire country to promote books and reading.
Until his retirement in 1997, Westra worked to keep the vision of a South African Centre for the Book alive and to persuade private sector partners to become involved with funding and in-kind support. He also continued to promote one of his initial notions: that the South African Centre for the Book be located in one of the finest Edwardian buildings in Cape Town, which was then being restored.
The South African Centre for the Book received its first funding in 1997 and began operation in 1998 under the leadership of Elisabeth Anderson, a former history teacher who was aware of the need to promote reading and writing in all of South Africa's languages and to provide every South African with free and easy access to books. In 1999 the South African Library (founded in 1818) and the State Library in Pretoria (founded in 1887) were merged to form the National Library of South Africa.
Today the South African Centre for the Book, a unit of the national library, has a full-time staff of eight plus several project consultants. Moreover, the centre is located in the restored Edwardian building championed by Westra and rents this impressive space for events, an important source of revenue. In 2004 the South African Centre for the Book's First Words in Print project, which provides picture and story books in all South African languages to young children and their families, won a major reading promotion award from the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY).
John Y. Cole is director of the Center for the Book.