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A library changed my life, and books can still change our world

- William Gumede

Why libraries still matter and how township gangs teased me about reading.

An encounter with a mobile township library as a nine-year old in 1979 in our informal settlement on the Cape Flats was a dramatic turning point for me, which transformed my life for good, forever.

Everything changed for me when I saw one of my friends in the informal settlement we lived, a few years older than me, leaving their shack with a plastic bag that appeared filled with books.

Being school holidays, and therefore in my view then, no reason to carry books, I was perplexed. I ask him why on earth he would being doing with books.

He told me he was going to the mobile library, which he said came around once a week. By then I had never been to a library before, so was confused. He explained to me it was a place where you could get books for free.

He invited me to go with him to see for myself. Intrigued, I went along. My life would never be the same again.  It began a life-long love affair with reading, books and libraries.

The humble township mobile library was a veritable Aladdin’s Treasury Cave. I signed up to become a member.

Through reading I could often temporarily transport myself out of the grinding poverty, violence and uncertainty that surrounded me in the harsh squatter camp we lived, to faraway safe, peaceful and comforting places. I saw the world, other peoples, other cultures.

Through my new-found love for reading, I discovered that my own seemingly dead-end circumstances were not unique. About how others lifted themselves from similar dire situations.

Reading lifted me out of poverty – of the mind, vision and ambition.

The library became a safe space too. Although getting there every week was often treacherous. There was social stigma about reading. It was supposedly not manly enough to read. I would often be waylaid by the assortment of township teenage gangs who would tease me about being a sissy by reading books.

Once I had to fight my way with my fists out of a menacing encounter, when rabid boy gangs wanted to tear up my beloved books.

I have remained a life-long visitor to libraries, wherever I’ve lived in South Africa or abroad. Often when I travel at home or abroad, I would popped into the local library to have a look-around. The rows of books, the library silence would fill me with warmth, of pleasant memories of books read and a sense of tranquility.

Sadly, these days, just like in the black townships and informal settlements of my youth on the Cape Flats in the 1970s and 1980s, libraries, books and reading are not seen as important for individual, community or country development.

This can be seen in the fact that libraries are often the first public buildings to be torched during public service delivery protests when residents expressed their anger violently against government corruption, lack of public services and indifference.

Last year, the impoverished community of Letsopa in Ottosdal in the North West province burned down a multimillion library during violent protests against lack of public service delivery by government. The state-of-the art library included a toy library for children and a library for the blind.

The North West Arts, Culture, Sports and Recreation MEC Virginia Tlhapi at the time said: “It is sad when poor communities like those of Letsopa destroy property built to change their lives, especially for their kids who use these libraries to improve their performance at school and create jobs for the local people”.

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.

In 2016, students at the University of KwaZulu Natal burned down one of the country’s finest law libraries during the “Fees Must Fall” protests for free university fees. The ANC at the time in a public statement likened the library burning to the activities of the youth wing of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.

Community members, civil society organisations and student movements must hold those who burn libraries in public protests accountable, communities must shun them and they needed to be prosecuted.  

Sadly, many community libraries across the country appear to be in 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, from turbulent homes and townships.

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.

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

Those with skills and time could volunteer to read in community libraries, donate books and technology resources. Public reading should also take place on social media platforms – and reading ‘streaming’ events could be regularly organized.

To adapt with the times, digital libraries should be established, where books could be downloaded freely.

This is an extract from William Gumede’s forthcoming talk on “Why libraries still matter”, on 15 February 2021, at the launch of the South African Library Week organized by the Library and Information Association of South Africa.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, Wits University. His latest children’s book is Upside Down World (African Storybook). This article was first published in the Sunday Times.