It is now commonly accepted that there is a deep crisis regarding the ‘culture of reading” in South Africa. Only a very small section of the public reads and buys books, there is a virtual collapse of library services, and publishing in black languages continues to struggle 16 years after the end of apartheid.
The indices of this crisis are equally well-known:
- Only a very small section of the public reads and buys books – both for leisure (fiction) and self-education or self-advancement (non-fiction)
- Public libraries have been in long-term decline, and school libraries are just about non-existent
- Although a large part of young South Africans go through the schooling system, it is also commonly accepted that their reading and numeracy skills are very low – lagging behind that of their counterparts in the sub-region
Sources of the crisis
In many discussions of the crisis of the ‘culture of reading’ one key explanatory factor stands out: the legacy of apartheid. Apartheid, quite rightly, is an important factor in accounting for the state of literature in black languages, in the literacy levels among the adult population of South Africa, and indeed in the class structure that still sees the majority of South Africans trapped in poverty. But it has been 16 years after the end of official apartheid and smaller countries in the South African Development Community (SADC) region, with much less resources, register better reading and numeracy skills than young people in South Africa. Cuba, with equally limited resources, was able to raise the standard of reading and wipe out illiteracy in a few years. So why does a crisis in the culture of reading persist so stubbornly 16 years after the end of apartheid?
Two other factors account for the persistence of this crisis.
Firstly, the democratic government of the post-1994 period made a number of policy choices that have proved fatal for the development of a culture of reading. Basically, the fundamental policy choice made by the post-apartheid government was to choose a market-driven path to economic and social development in South Africa. This path was captured most dramatically by the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy in 1996, and the closure of the RDP office soon thereafter. GEAR, however, is not just an ‘economic’ policy: it is a holistic political, social and economic policy. Over the last 14-odd years, the consequences have been profound:
- South Africa today is the most unequal society in the world. Markets reinforce, and do not overcome, inequality
- Almost half the population lives below the poverty line, and about 40 percent of men and women of working age are unemployed. The majority of unemployed are youth, who are the natural target audience for a broad-based culture of reading
- Starved of resources, the ‘social infrastructure of reading’ in many townships has been under severe stress and in most cases has virtually collapsed
This ‘social infrastructure of reading’ refers to the quality of people’s general standard of living. This includes, among other items, libraries, schools, colleges, universities, book stores and spaces created for leisure. This includes well-resourced (with books and literacy promoting programmes) kindergartens during childhood, youth leisure and recreation centres, access to good lighting in the home (electricity) and adequate spacious housing. (For instance, an RDP house does not provide space for leisure.) A transport infrastructure that is extensive and cheap enough to encourage social interaction lies at the heart of a culture of reading. A transport infrastructure enables a township resident to attend a poetry reading, a book club, a literary festival in another part of the city or country, and so on.
Given these conditions, it is no wonder that the majority of South African do not read, or cannot read. It is not difficult to see or to demonstrate the correlation between levels of inequality and a low culture of reading in a country. Countries with high levels of inequality have a low culture of reading, and vice versa: countries with a more equal society will show a higher culture of reading.
Structure of Publishing
The second factor that accounts for this crisis in the culture of reading is the structure of the publishing industry itself. In many debates on the culture of reading the publishing industry presents itself as the victim of this crisis. Of course, the publishing industry stands in a contradictory relationship to a culture of reading in any country. On the one hand, it has an interest in the expansion of the reading market, and the more people who read the more it is a potential beneficiary. On the other hand, as an industry driven by the profit motive, it can only accept the expansion of reading if this protects and expands the proverbial bottom line (or the profit margin). In South Africa this contradiction is an acute one, and the publishing industry shares this contradiction with the majority of capitalist industry.
The publishing industry in South Africa is highly concentrated, with a small number of publishers (estimated at less than 20) accounting for the major part of the country’s book trade. Further, in the last few years, global companies and distributors have made significant inroads into the industry. This industry has remained profitable because of market concentration, since it focuses on a small and predominantly white middle class for its market. This has also reinforced a (high) price structure that generally excludes the majority of the population from being able to afford books. Indeed, over the last five years the tendency has been that price increases outstrip growth in volumes sold, indicating the general price indifference of the primary market for publishers in South Africa.
The structure of the industry acts a barrier to the development of a broad culture of reading in South Africa.
Firstly, the tendencies towards concentration are accompanied by a tendency towards risk aversion, and so book titles that do not promise high returns are excluded. The impact on local stories and new writers is a negative one, and in turn this has a negative impact on a broad-based culture of reading. Secondly, small and independent publishing is the lifeblood of a strong culture of reading, especially in a developing country such as South Africa. The tendencies towards concentration inherent in capitalist industry destroy small publishers without maintaining the appetite for risk that small publishers have. Thirdly, the tendency is for profit-maximising publishers to treat readers as ‘customers’, and not as citizens with a right to reading. These corporations only see the ‘culture of reading’ as a philanthropic act, and therefore do not engage in broad-based and sustained activism that is needed to transform reading cultures in South Africa. Fourthly, although private large publishers cannot play the role of transforming reading cultures, they oppose (whether actively or passively) affording a central role for the state in the transformation of reading cultures. Fifthly, the tendency to risk aversion in the publishing industry has meant that the book distribution network is largely concentrated in the white middle class areas, with no willingness or strategy to create a distribution network in working class areas.
An analysis that deepens our understanding of the sources of the crisis in the culture of reading is vital if we are to make significant inroads into transforming and expanding reading cultures. It is not enough for us to continue to blame the legacy of apartheid. We need to explore and deepen our understanding, our critique of how social, economic and political policy options affect the development of a culture of reading. We need to develop a critique of the publishing industry itself in order to explore the kind of changes (in the industrial structure) we need to transform and broaden reading cultures.
- Oupa Lehulere works at Khanya College and is member of the editorial collective. This article first appeared in the Khanya Journal 24. It is republished here with the permission of Khanya College, a NGO assisting various constituencies within working class and poor communities to respond to the challenges posed by the forces of economic and political globalisation.