Dumelang lotlhe, in all our official languages.
Deputy Minister in the Presidency, Honourable Obed Bapela, please allow me to be brief and say: All protocol observed.
I feel honoured to be invited to address this summit on behalf of the Department of Arts and Culture. Today’s gathering is a vital step towards the promotion of media literacy and a culture of reading which are central to building a dynamic and knowledgeable society.
The importance of the media in developing an informed and knowledgeable society cannot be overemphasised. It is through the media that information about governance, public policies, new developments and our general livelihood is transmitted to the people. Media could also be used as a powerful tool for people to express their experience, observations, desires and to share information, among several other possibilities.
However, I think it must be noted the first step to take on this path is to ensure that our society is literate. Having a dynamic media without a literate society would be a wasteful exercise. In the 21st century it is almost impossible to be productive at any level without basic literacy. Literacy determines the level of development of all productive forces in society. Media literacy and the culture of reading are fundamental elements in the creation of a dynamic, knowledgeable and progressive society. It is no coincidence that while we are complaining about the lack of a culture of reading, there has been a steady decline in media consumption.
This places a mammoth challenge to the MDDA as the agency of government charged with the daunting task of ensuring development and diversity in the media. The MDDA has to rise to the challenge of transforming and diversifying a sector that has been predominantly in the hands of those who served, and were beneficiaries of, national oppression and racial exploitation. The role of the media in shaping public discourse and perceptions during the colonial and apartheid eras is well documented.
The media was also one of the powerful tools in the struggles waged against colonialism and apartheid. Among those the apartheid regime rounded up for the so-called Treason Trial were writers and journalists like Govan Mbeki, Ruth First, Alex la Guma, and Alf Hutchinson, for instance. What this suggests is that the media is a powerful tool that is susceptible to manipulation, which is why it is important to media diversity, both in ownership and in content.
We need to redirect the power of the media and make a meaningful contribution to the culture of reading. More book reviews and reading promotion programmes are needed at popular slots, including front pages in newspapers and prime time broadcast on radio and TV.
The MDDA is a very important player in ensuring that as a nation we do not rely on one dominant stream for the flow of information and that our published information reflects our society in all its diversity. Most importantly, your task is to ensure that the rural and urban poor are part of the national discourse and also receive information in their own languages.
It is remarkable that in a space of less than a decade, the MDDA has managed to support over 400 projects and created a number of employment opportunities in the process. It is also encouraging to learn that as part of the development of the institution you have established a programme responsible for Media Literacy and Culture of Reading.
Your efforts, of course, contribute to the broader landscape of initiatives that attempt to curb illiteracy and promote the culture of reading in South Africa. I learn that there are over seventy literacy and reading promotion initiatives in South Africa at the moment. These include literacy projects, literary festivals, book fairs, reading campaigns, and similar initiatives that contribute toward the creation of a reading society. However, in spite of all these interventions, reading is not anywhere near becoming our national pastime.
I think one of the reasons our efforts do not yield any demonstrable results is that we do not have a wholistic approach to the work we do. We must strive to abolish the silos that are prevalent in our society, especially in the public sector. With better planning and cooperation amongst the relevant stakeholders, we can make a more significant impact towards the fulfillment of the vision that we all espouse.
The Department of Arts and Culture tries to work with the book sector through our institutions. One of the major interventions in the sector is the introduction of National Book Week three years ago. Our objective was to position National Book Week as the premier platform through which the government, the book sector, the media and civil society establish dynamic partnerships for the promotion of a culture of reading and writing. This initiative is a collaborative effort between DAC and the South African Book Development Council (SABDC).
Last year, we introduced the schools debate programme, which ensured that learners are active participants in the activities. We piloted this programme by distributing books to about 50 schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro which the learners read and debated amongst themselves during National Book Week. This particular aspect of the programme demonstrated quite clearly that with sustained efforts to promote literacy and increased access to reading material, young people can adapt to reading as a lifestyle.
Community newspapers like Zithethele in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, were instrumental in spreading the word about the National Book Week. I believe that we can leverage this relationship and employ community media, including newspapers, TV and radio, as the vehicle to create awareness about literacy and reading efforts that we embark upon. The MDDA can play a very important role in establishing this network.
One of the major interventions that can be made, for instance, is to create literacy or reading promotion space in every newspaper in the country. After all, promoting a reading culture will contribute towards audience development. In the case of projects supported by the MDDA, it should be mandatory for them to commit to promoting the culture of reading. A community newspaper, for instance, can demonstrate this by dedicating at least 600 words to book reviews, literary interviews, feature profiles and anything that has to do with literature or literacy.
I have heard many people claiming that there are no books in indigenous languages. I am challenging all media present today, to tell me that if we send them books in the indigenous languages, they will see to it that those books are reviewed in those languages.
The constitution of South Africa recognises eleven official languages. However, in all practical terms, including publishing, our nine indigenous languages remain grossly marginalised. There are many reasons for this but I won’t dwell on that today. Perhaps what is important is the kind of intervention that can be made in order to promote the development of our indigenous languages.
In our efforts to address the linguistic imbalance in both publishing and the reading of material in indigenous African languages, we worked with the National Library to reprint indigenous laguages classics. Through this initiative, we have managed to reprint a total of 67 literary classics in the nine indigenous languages.
The reprinted classics include S.E.K. Mqhayi, Subusiso Nyembezi, Raditladi, Monyaise, O.K. Matsepe, and others. These books are made available in the community libraries across South Africa for public access. However, we have realised that many people do not know about the existence of these books in their community libraries.
It is in this regard then, that we believe that community media have got an important role in creating awareness and promoting the culture of reading in the communities. We can make review copies available for the various community newspapers supported by the MDDA. I have a catalogue here that we can share with the various stakeholders so that they can select review copies according to their language of specialty.
Another initiative with the SABDC, the Indigenous Languages Publishing Programme, looks into the aspect of producing new work in the nine indigenous languages. What we do, in this regard, is to provide assistance to small independent publishers that have a track record of publishing books in these languages.
We are making all these efforts in the belief that we all understand the importance of literacy in the modern world. All of us, including families, civil society, the corporate and the public sectors, have a role to play in creating a reading nation.
In the spirit of the MDDA let us never forget to target the future.
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