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The World Around Us: South Africa

In 1994, two extraordinary events shook Africa. In Rwanda, Hutus, armed with machetes and guns, slaughtered over 800,000 Tutsis. And in South Africa, the African National Congress, with Nelson Mandela as its leader, swept to victory in the country's first democratic elections. As earth-shaking as they were for Africa, however, neither event garnered much notice here in the United States.

In the movie, Hotel Rwanda, there's a scene between a photojournalist and Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who managed to save the lives of 1,200 Tutsis. The photojournalist has captured pictures of the slaughter taking place in the streets of Kigali, and has sent them via satellite to the outside world. Paul expresses hope that now that the horrors have been exposed, western governments will step in to stop the genocide. The journalist replies that he hopes so, but what will likely happen is that people will watch the news, express their horror, and return to their dinners.

What is it about Africa that invites this patent lack of interest in the trials and challenges of this particular continent? Genocide in eastern Europe invites condemnation and aid from the west. Conflicts in the Middle East bring the U.S. running to the aid of oil-rich countries like Kuwait. A natural disaster in southeast Asia brings immediate humanitarian aid from countries around the world. But on African conflicts and humanitarian disasters, such as those going on right now in the Congo and Sudan, the western world is either complicit in creating the conflict, or largely silent. The western world has spent much of modern history exploiting the resources – human, animal, mineral – of the African continent, while introducing a host of ecological and sociological problems.

Reading with students after school in the children's room at Johannesburg's Central Library; photo courtesy of John Cole The Gauteng Department of Education mobile library

The problems faced by African nations are equally as great as those faced by countries in other regions of the world, if not greater. In a country like South Africa, which has the appearance of a developed nation but the challenges of a developing nation, the problems seem insurmountable: poverty, hunger, drought, AIDS, tuberculosis, crime, xenophobia, illiteracy, and a highly fractured social and economic infrastructure. South Africa is really a new nation, barely 10 years old, and its struggle to create the necessary support systems reflect its youth.

A 2004 United Nations report revealed the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day) had reversed its upward trend in every region of the world except sub-Saharan Africa where the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has continued to grow for over 20 years. South Africa also has a very high unemployment rate, between 40% and 50%, with some areas experiencing unemployment rates of 70% or higher.

Poverty and unemployment bring with them a host of social and economic problems. Crime – both property crimes and violent crimes, such as carjackings and murder – is prevalent. Domestic violence rates are high in poverty-stricken areas, and as a result, many women are struggling to raise their families alone. The lack of employment opportunities for under-educated or unskilled workers has created a large informal economy, but it provides little more than a subsistence living. Informal settlements, created by the migration from rural to urban areas in search of employment, create safety issues – fire is a common occurrence, and the lack of clean water and sewage brings a greater risk for disease. Xenophobia – the fear of strangers – is prevalent in the informal settlements, with most conflicts occurring between different tribal groups rather than between racial groups.

Another serious issue facing South Africa is the spread of communicable diseases, particularly HIV and tuberculosis. It is estimated that at the end of 2003, some 5.6 million South Africans (22.8%) were living with HIV, the majority of them women and children born to HIV-infected women.

The library at Reasoma High School in Soweto The children's collection at the Protea North Public Library in Soweto; photo courtesy Liane Rosenblatt

On my most recent visit to South Africa in May/June 2004, I traveled with a group of librarians and teachers exploring literacy issues. Literacy, like poverty and disease, is a significant challenge in South Africa. According to UNICEF, adult literacy rates in 2000 were 85%. But that only tells part of the story.

Public education in South Africa is not free. Every school charges tuition, some as little as $10 (U.S.) per year, which seems small, but is beyond the means of some families. In addition to tuition, there are the costs of school uniforms and books. Many families go to extraordinary lengths to send their children to school, although most schools will not turn away students whose families cannot afford the tuition, uniform, or books. The quality of education varies greatly and depends largely on the resources available to the school.

Many adults living in poverty, especially those who grew up under apartheid, lack more than a sixth-grade education, and while they may speak five or six languages fluently, lack the ability to read or write in most of them. Those who are parents push to have their children educated in English, which means that the children do not have the advantage of learning to read and write in their primary language. Many schools do teach multiple languages, but the language of instruction is generally English or Afrikaans. With eleven official languages in South Africa, additional languages offered will depend on the language most spoken in the community.

Libraries are often in short supply, especially in rural areas, informal settlements and the townships. Many schools do not have libraries or have very small collections. Of the three high schools we visited, only one had a formal library with a small collection and space for teaching. The other two had makeshift libraries created by a teacher: one shared space with the science lab, and the other was located in a storage room. None of these libraries had librarians, and only teachers could actually borrow items and then, only for use in their classrooms. But all three schools expressed a keen awareness of the importance of libraries, and wanted to see more developed libraries that students could use.

AIDS education posters in the Protea North Public Library; photo courtesy Liane Rosenblatt The library at the Westbank Community School

Where public libraries exist, collections tend to be small, but both the buildings and collections are heavily used. The public library in Protea North, a township in Soweto, was a huge building. The first floor housed a children's collection, a national history collection with books about South African history and culture, a video collection and a small circulating adult collection, as well as the circulation and reference desks. On the second floor, a tiny satellite collection from the local community college library sat on a few lonely shelves at one end of the room. The rest of the huge room was filled with tables and chairs that, even in the middle of the day, were occupied. At the other end of the room were two offices: one was the local AIDS education office, and the other housed the literacy program. Posters about AIDS are very common in lower-income communities, and formal education programs are also a common sight.

In spite of the bleak picture I've just painted, there are many positive things we saw while in South Africa. On a visit to University of the Western Cape (UWC), we were introduced to the Westbank project, located in an integrated township that was built after apartheid ended. When the school day ends at 2:00pm, the local high school becomes a community school, offering literacy training for adults within the community, most of whom speak Afrikaans as their first language. The school also offers job and life skills training. Adults were learning cooking, woodworking, knitting, crocheting, quilting and other home and industrial arts. There is also a community garden; proceeds from the sale of the food grown in the garden will be used to support the school and community. Librarians and library science faculty from the university are building a library within the school, one where students and community members will be able to borrow materials. When we visited, the library was in the process of being established; donated books were on the shelves, but they had not yet been sorted or classified.

In Soweto, we met Thebe Mohatle, Media Coordinator for the Johannesburg Public Schools, who was a teenager during the 1976 Soweto riots. Thebe created the Saturday School, a part-time venture that works with high school seniors in Protea North to prepare them for the workforce and/or higher education; his goal is to enable them to be problem solvers and creative and critical thinkers. He has trained teachers to work with him, and hopes that one day his Saturday School will become a full-time school, offering classes five days a week.

Lorato Trok describing the First Words in Print program at the Centre for the Book; photo courtesy John Cole Manyano High School in Khyelitsha, near Cape Town

We also met Lorato Trok, a librarian who serves as Project Coordinator for First Words in Print, a program sponsored by the Centre for the Book. The First Words in Print project publishes and distributes books for children written in (so far) seven of South Africa's eleven official languages. So far the project has distributed 22,550 books to children in five of South Africa's nine provinces. Lorato grew up without libraries, and recognizes the vicious legacy of illiteracy that apartheid has given the country.

At the studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Johannesburg, we learned about educational programming for people of all ages, including Takalani Sesame, the first Sesame Street program to talk openly about AIDS. Much of the programming focuses on social themes, such as AIDS, literacy, relationships, sex, and xenophobia, as well as on providing primary education for children in their first language.

In return for the warm hospitality to which were treated at each stop, we wanted to leaving something behind. Our opportunity came when we visited Manyano High School in Khyelitsha outside Cape Town where we asked students what they wanted for their school and received a surprisingly modest response: they wanted some decent science equipment. These students see science and math as their path to higher education and the workforce. The school had a very modest science lab with a single microscope, but no slides. Each time the science teacher wanted to conduct a lab, she would drive to University of the Western Cape (a one-hour round trip), pick up the set of slides, return to the school, conduct the lab, then return the slides to the university. Before we left South Africa, we had raised the funds to purchase a set of slides for the science lab and arranged for their purchase and delivery.

The science lab at Manyano High School, Khyelitsha (near Cape Town) shares space with the school library Students greeting their visitors at Tetelo High School in Soweto

I think that by far the most memorable experience was our visit to Tetelo High School in Protea North where we spent several hours. When we arrived at the school in the morning of one of our last days, the students and teachers were standing in the courtyard waiting to greet us. Students also lined the driveway, welcoming us onto the school grounds. As we walked toward the school, the choir started singing, and a student waving the South African flag led us to a row of chairs at the front of the assembled students.

As the principal offered an official welcome, he explained that the day was tinged with sadness over the suicide of one of its students the day before. The school was in mourning, but they welcomed us with warm hospitality and enthusiasm. During the course of the morning, we listened to the choir, complete with a performance of the seduction duet from Don Giovanni (sung in Italian!), toured the school, met the librarian staffing the visiting mobile library (one of five mobile libraries in the district), watched a musical about the end of apartheid that was written and performed by students, and listened to the recitation of a students poem, "Proudly South African."

My experiences in South Africa have been so inspiring, I can't imagine not wanting to get involved, to be a piece in some small way of developing solutions to the seemingly insurmountable challenges and to spend time basking in the warmth and strength of the South African people.

The choir performing for visitors at Tetelo High School in Soweto; photo courtesy Liane Rosenblatt Students performing a play about the end of apartheid at Tetelo High School in Soweto

To conclude, I'd like to share a story that shows that South Africans are not so different from us. On my first visit to South Africa in 2003, on my first foray into the city following my conference, I got disoriented. I'd taken a shared taxi into the City Bowl, planning to follow the recommended walking tour in the Lonely Planet guide, but took a wrong turn and got lost. I managed to find my way into the heart of the business district where I was standing on a corner contemplating my next move when a shared taxi pulled up, with the driver yelling Sea Point! which was exactly where I needed to go. I paid my fare and took that last available seat. In the taxi were a dozen people of all ages and a rainbow of colors. As we headed toward Sea Point, out of the speakers came Bob Marley singing "One Love". Everyone in the taxi started singing along. I knew at that moment that this is a country I would visit again. Who could resist? Even now, the memory of the incident brings a huge smile to my face and a feeling of warmth to my heart.

Warmth, hospitality, beauty, strength, inspiration, and homecoming are all words that I have come to associate with South Africa, and I've decided that I want to be a part, no matter how small, of finding solutions to some of the seemingly insurmountable problems the country faces. And I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want the same. Just remember Bob Marley!

Published in the University of Oregon Libraries' LSA Newsletter, number 63, March 2005 -

© 2005, colleen bell about / words