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Why reading is crucial for economic growth

- William Gumede

Reading is a stepladder out of poverty, not only for individuals, but also for entire countries.

Developing a far-reaching culture of reading in their societies, has been a crucial development trigger that has lifted many poor countries out of desperate poverty.

Reading is not only essential to increase an individual’s knowledge, broaden their range of opportunities and expand their personal growth; so too, is reading crucial for the overall development of countries.

Very little sustainable development can happen within a country without the fostering of a society-wide reading culture. Societies who don’t read, are bound to remain locked in underdevelopment. This fact is often poorly understood by policy makers in many African and developing countries.

It is important to stress that reading as a crucial foundation not only for individual development, but for a country’s development. In South Africa, in community protests against lack of public service delivery, libraries are often misguidedly set on fire by protesters.

Incredibly, even during the student protests at higher education institutions, such as the “Fees Must Fall” protests, which called for free access to education, knowledge and learning, campus libraries were regularly destroyed. This shows the extent to which books and reading are not seen as at the core of individual, community and country development.

Many countries that in the post-Second World War transformed from poor to developed country status, such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, had before their economic takeoff cultivated a dramatic expansion of reading among their citizens.

South Africa lack a culture of reading, which has crippled not only individual, but also the country’s development. Naturally, high levels of illiteracy undermines reading. Yet, many South Africans who can read, do not.

Black communities in particular, are not reading. Most of the reading is often done for essential tasks.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). The article was first published on News24.

South African leaders, from across the spectrum, from politics to religion do not appear to read widely either. And often when they do read, they often read very narrowly.

This lack of reading among South Africa’s governing elite have contributed to a poverty of ideas, imagination and policy; which can often be seen in the country’s empty public debates, decisions and strategies.

Many South African political leaders do not appear to see the point in reading. It is therefore not surprising that many in leadership positions in government frustratingly also appear not to give the due development importance to reading.

Sadly, in South Africa, reading appears not to be seen as a societal good. There is still a social stigma attached to those who read – both among adults and children. A prerequisite to foster a nation-wide culture of reading, the stigma attached to reading should be combatted.

It is important that we start a societal culture of reading by encouraging children to read. If adults do not read, children are unlikely to read. Children are more likely to read if there are books around them: at home, in schools and in the spaces they frequent.

In fact, reading should start while children are still in the womb. For example, both mothers and fathers could read aloud while their children are still in the womb. Grandparents, parents and siblings should regularly read to younger children.

It is important that parents start reading-based activities and plays in children’s early years. Reading should be incorporating into playing, whether at home or at school. Adults could play with their children with letters, words and writing.

Children should be encouraged to read in everyday situations, such as when parents do the shopping. They should be encouraged to read grocery labels, ingredients and road signs.

South Africa also need a culture of reading in schools, beyond reading just for passing tests. A culture reading is absent in many government schools. Reading should be made part of every facet of the curriculum.

Many public schools do not have the simple basics of having a library. Sometimes, where they are present, they are often marginal to the life of the school. School libraries should become the centre of school life.

However, school libraries should adapt to the times also: become more interactive, combine online with traditional books and have writers engage regularly with children.

Sadly, many community libraries across the country appear to be disrepair, empty and soulless. Community libraries must be revived. They should be turned into one-stop resource centres, where youth can study, access online resources, operating almost like Internet Cafes, and obtain traditional books. Libraries also have the potential to serve as safe spaces; where people can seek refuge in reading, in turbulent homes.

There should be regular community-based public reading – with local influencers, writers and public figures publicly reading.

South Africa needs a civil society movement for reading – bringing together volunteers, civil society organisations, business and government, to lead a national campaign to get society reading. Those with skills and time could volunteer to read in community libraries, donate books and technology resources.

There has to be much more reading of books on public media, especially radio, which is still the medium with the largest reach in the country. Public reading should also take place on social media platforms – and reading ‘streaming’ events could be regularly organized. Reading is the missing ingredient in South Africa’s multiple plans to lift the country out of poverty, unemployment and social breakdown.  

This is a shortened extract from Prof William Gumede’s recent address on “Fostering a culture of Reading in South Africa”, to the 2020 Virtual Indaba of the Library and Information Association of South Africa.