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New cause: one school, one library, one librarian

SUE BLAINE – Published in the Weekender in Edition 17/10/09

SCHOOL libraries are something veteran campaigner Zachie Achmat “feels passionate about”.

That should send chills up the spines of anyone who thinks that the South African government should not provide SA’s approximately 26700 public schools with a well-stocked library and a dedicated librarian.

Equal Education, a lobby group with Achmat on its board, is working towards this goal.

Achmat is well known for his sterling work in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to ensure all HIV-positive South Africans have the access to care that the constitution promises them.

While Achmat says he is “just” on Equal Education’s board, and “doing petition collection and Facebook stuff”, the fact that his considerable campaign experience is freely available to the group is a boon.

“Equal Education is about the dignity of every child. You need to read properly to have proper access to knowledge.This is an opportunity to develop children’s talents equally by providing libraries to all public schools,” Achmat says.

The Department of Basic Education’s research shows only 7% of SA’s public schools have functional libraries, says Equal Education co-ordinator Doron Isaacs.

It’s early days — the library campaign launched in August — but Equal Education, which was formed last year, has successfully campaigned in another area: reducing the numbers of children coming late to school in its home base of Khayelitsha, on the Cape Flats. “Our members, school pupils themselves, stood outside school and handed out fliers,” says Doron Isaacs, Equal Education’s co-ordinator.

“There was a huge drop in late-coming. At Esangweni High School, on the first day of the campaign, 120 kids who were late were locked out. By the end of the two-and-a-half months of the campaign, none were late.

“At Harry Gwala School, on the first day of the campaign 600 kids were late and locked out, by the end (of the campaign) the consistent late-coming figure was less than 10.”

While Isaacs says it would not be accurate to portray Equal Education as “made up of former TAC members — some of us were in TAC, but not centrally involved”, the group has learned good strategy lessons from the organisation. These include organising “on the ground” in poor and working-class communities, which are the primary source of the group’s membership and leadership, but not ignoring middle-class communities.

The group will also learn from the TAC about framing “struggles” as being about the realisation of legal entitlements that already exist in the constitution.

Equal Education would like to take its school library campaign national, but it is well aware that to do so requires a well-oiled organisation and sufficient funding. “SA is a young democratic country. We looked at the TAC and how they used the constitution as a basis for their arguments, and how to give information to ordinary people,” says Isaacs. "We saw that when you give information to ordinary people about the facts and their rights, it is tremendously motivating. It galvanises action.”

Equal Education used public meetings, workshops and seminars to build up support and devise a campaign strategy.

The organisation is spreading news of its campaign through the media, a petition signed by more than 20000 people, letters to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and Western Cape Education MEC Donald Grant, and marches.

It’s working. People are beginning to take notice of their simple but powerful message.

The argument for functional school libraries is well worn, says Prof Genevieve Hart, a senior lecturer in the University of the Western Cape’s department of library and information science.

“People like me, groups like Liasa (the Library and Information Association of SA), that claim to represent school libraries have failed,” she says.

“There is research that shows that if you spend money on a school library, it can iron out social disadvantage. We’ve been bleating about it for years. Perhaps what Equal Education is showing is the way to go about doing this.”

Equal Education wants the government to draw the final line on a National School Libraries Policy — there have been five drafts of this drawn up since 1994, but none of them has been finalised or implemented.

The Schools Act, which governs education in SA, makes no mention of libraries. Under apartheid, most schools serving white communities had functional libraries, but very few schools in other communities had them.

Since 1994, many of the schools in former nonwhite areas which had libraries have lost them because of a lack of funding. The South African school library survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council in 1999 found 32% of schools nationwide had an “onsite library”, but most were shut because full-time teachers were expected to be librarians too.

The high point of the campaign so far has been Equal Education’s march in Cape Town last month to highlight its school library campaign. The march followed the same route taken by Cape school pupils in September 1976 in solidarity with their Soweto peers who had begun a protest against the forceful introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, says Isaacs.

“We did it to revive history. At the City Hall we screened a movie that we’d prepared on September 1976,” he says.

“The symbolism is: young people, this time from different backgrounds — from the Cape Flats and from Rondebosch — saying it’s unfair that some have a 60-strong class, no library, a teacher who doesn’t know the work and doesn’t turn up on time, and others don’t have these problems.

“Now is the time for everyone to have a quality and an equal education. The demand is the same as in ’76.”

Hart says Equal Education’s campaign reminds her of the protests of the 1980s.

“There’s a fervour there, and in the ’80s the protest organisers were also read up and informed … They are quite strategic. They have really done their homework.

“One school, one library, one librarian, is not just a slogan.”

Carla GoldsteinNew cause: one school, one library, one librarian