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Free the Book! EE at the Open Book Festival

Today sees the start of the Open Book Festival in Cape Town ( Equal Education has been partnering with Open Book. In part, this will help leverage support for our ‘1 School! 1 Library! 1 Librarian!” campaign among festival-goers. But beyond this, we are hoping that the Youth Programme – which we have co-organised – will generate excitement for reading in the communities and schools where we work.   

As festival-goers fill the various festival venues in the Cape Town City Bowl and rightly celebrate the joys of reading and writing, there are sobering facts that should not be forgotten.  

In the PIRLS 2006 report, which tested primary school learners’ reading skills in forty countries, South Africa’s learners achieved the lowest scores. This poor national performance hides an equally serious problem: the huge gap in literacy between the advantaged and disadvantaged parts of South African society. According to the Western Cape Education department, in 2009, 49% of Grade 6 learners in the Western Cape could read and write and the right level. However, of these 49% of learners, 86% attended schools that had been reserved for white learners during apartheid.

These numbers can be read alongside a quantitative survey conducted by the South African Book Development Council in 2007, which found that 51% of South African households do not have a single book in their homes, that only 14% of South Africans are active readers and that only 5% of South African parents read to their children. 45% of people polled felt that books were too expensive.

Town Hall Meeting 

On Thursday, 22 September, we will be hosting a town hall meeting at the Open Book Festival. The topic of the discussion is‘Free the Book: How to make South Africa a reading nation.’ Raising the issue of literacy during a literary festival is fitting and – in our view – imperative.

We are not hosting this discussion to simply lament the country’s low literacy rates and then be weighed down by the magnitude of the task at hand. Rather, we view this as yet another opportunity to challenge members of the public, the private sector, publishers and Government to all play their parts in increasing access to books in especially poor and working-class communities and tackle the country’s low literacy rates. Interventions are needed on many levels and we can all play a part to ‘Free the Book’ (or indeed 'Open [the] Book') for all people in South Africa. It will also give individuals and organisations an opportunity to strengthen existing partnerships and sow  seeds for new collaborations.

The panellists for Thursday’s discussion are:

  • Jay Naidoo (former Cosatu General Secretary and co-founder of the J&J Group) 
  • Sindiwe Magona (author of )
  • Mignon Hardie (Managing Trustee of the FunDza Literacy Trust and co-founder of Cover2Cover Books) 
  • Ntuthuzo Ndzomo (Equal Education).

The discussion takes place on Thursday, 22 September, at 18h00 at Hiddingh Hall (Orange Street, Gardens). Attendance is free. Please come and share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions.  

Our team at the Bookery has also been collaborating with Open Book to establish a functioning library at Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School in Khayelitsha. The official opening takes place on Saturday, 24 September. 

The Open Book organisers have expressed their commitment to promoting a culture of reading in Cape Town’s poor and working-class communities beyond the five-day festival. We applaud them for this initiative and wish them a successful inaugural festival. 

Carla GoldsteinFree the Book! EE at the Open Book Festival