Our freedom up in flames

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Below is an article by Justice Malala on the recent burning down of a library in Balfour, Limpopo Province.

"Mandela's strength was inspired and reinforced by books." – Jacob Zuma

From the window of the school clerk's office, one could see and read the names of the books and authors on their spines. They were exotic, strange, and attractive. Foreign names would come hard to our lips: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Sembene Ousmane, Chinua Achebe. 
Incredibly, the bantustan Bophuthatswana government had delivered a full set of Heinemann's African Writers' Series to a rural middle school. Many of the books were considered so incendiary – like Wa Thiongo's work – in "South Africa" that detention followed possession of such literature.

What I remember about that set of books, with their trademark orange covers and spines, was how I longed to get my hands on them. My friends and I would loiter outside the clerk's office, hoping she would go to the loo, and we would hop in and have a quick read. Much to our disappointment, she seemed to be chained to her desk.

I was reminded of my thirst for those books this week, when I heard that protesters in Siyathemba township in Balfour had burnt down their library. I was staggered by the news. How can people who believe in a future, people who love themselves and their children, burn down a building that carries the knowledge that would without doubt carry them out of the poverty they currently experience?

Worse still, the protesters are not allowing pupils to go to school. In a province notorious for the failure of its education system, last week was crucial for those kids who had failed some matric papers and were writing supplementary examinations to make an improvement. 
Mpumalanga's education MEC, Reginah Mhaule, issued a statement saying: "I am making a humble call to the community of Balfour to allow teachers, learners and non-teaching staff to be in schools so that teaching and learning can progress unhindered." She was ignored.

It is unclear, at least this time around, what the people of Siyathemba want. At first, protesters demanded work at a local mine, saying foreigners are stealing their jobs. Then the demand changed swiftly to demanding that the mayor step down.

Siyathemba might very well have legitimate demands. But not a single one of them is so pressing that a library should be torched. Such an act is the work of a deeply sick and backward mind.

Books, for the people of Siyathemba and those among our leaders who do not see the seriousness of what has happened, are freedom. It does not matter where you find yourself, in happiness and in sorrow, books are the one thing that can lift you out of your circumstances and catapult you forward.

It is ironic that books and knowledge are under attack at a time when Nelson Mandela's emergence from prison is being celebrated. Mandela, who studied for his law degree by candle-light while working as a security guard, is true testimony to what books can do for you: the knowledge he gained through books took him from his village and enabled him to become an acclaimed lawyer and international icon.

Mandela won a Nobel prize. Mandela's education, both formal and life-long learning, is emphasised in the Nobel's citation, in which the role of literature in building up Robben Island prisoners is referred to.

"Shakespeare was a common denominator for the prisoners at Robben Island. Only a few of them were Christian believers; a few were Moslems or Hindus; a few, communists; and their origins were different. They all knew Shakespeare, however."

And they read the bard, and performed his works. That is why Robben Island was regarded as a university: they devoured the classics and found revolutionary ideas inside them.

Mandela and the other prisoners drew inspiration from these works, with Mandela's favourite lines being: "Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once."

Mandela and his comrades' strength was inspired and reinforced by books. They might have been in prison, but their minds were set free. Because they read, they were way ahead of their jailers. They were free.

This is something the petty thugs who burnt down the library in Siyathemba do not grasp. When they burnt down that library, it was an act of betrayal of everything that we as a nation should stand for. It displayed a mentality that is unfortunately being fostered by many in our country today.

This sort of barbarity is what is dragging our country down.


You have just read an article by Justice Malala criticising those who burnt down the Balfour Library. Below is an article published in the City Press about why these young people did such a destructive thing.

‘Why we burnt the Siyathemba library’

2010-02-21 13:00 

By Albert Pule

THE library in Balfour’s Siyathemba township in Mpumalanga went up in flames in order to get the government’s attention.

“Bekumele ishe lento (This thing had to burn),” said a 20-year-old local resident.

He was one of the stick-wielding looters and youngsters who went on the rampage earlier this month and burned down the library.

On Thursday, the spate of violent protests accompanied by the ominous smells of burning tyres and gunpowder and the popping sound of rubber bullets had subsided.

Although the situation was still tense, residents seemed upbeat about the pending visit by a high-level delegation led by Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka.

Driving through the township from the main entrance to the eastern section called Baghdad demands a patient and skilled driver because of the many potholes, rubble and ash from burnt tyres on the streets.

In Baghdad, young men who were allegedly at the forefront of the recent protests were playing football on the streets.

The section is famous for having the most “radical” and “militant” youngsters.

The 20-year-old resident we spoke to said that an attempt to torch the library during the day failed and they had to meet secretly during the night to restrategise for the final attempt. “We met during the night because amaphoyisa (police) were looking for us,” said the young man before he requested a cigarette from this reporter.

He said they bought two 25-litre containers of petrol for making petrol bombs.

“We had to do it, my chief. These people (government) don’t listen to us. We had to show them that we mean business” he said.

“Our main targets were government properties.”

These properties included the Siyathemba Multipurpose Centre that houses the offices of the department of home affairs, the local clinic and the satellite police station, which had already been destroyed.

The young man added that he was a proud xenophobe who had a problem with foreigners because they “sell drugs”.“Yibo labantu esiqala ngabo (These are the people we first deal with),” he said.

“Asibafuni labantu la elokshini (We don’t want them here in the township).”

Two more 20-year-old men, who matriculated last year, complained that the library had nothing but old books and only two computers without Internet access.

“That thing was just useless; it had to burn,” they said.

According to the pair, burning down the library sent a clear message to government.

They said another spate of violent protests was on the cards if the government failed to address their issues. 

– City Press