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ReadSA – Pushing for a Reading Nation

Following my blogpost of a while ago – It’s Still the Marketing Stupid – , a bunch of South African writers (more than 40 in number) agreed that the time had come that we actively do something about the state of reading in South Africa of South African works by South Africa. And the ReadSA campaign was born. The energy and enthusiasm from the writers has been stupendous. The support from BookSA and one or two international organisations have been humbling. Promises of support from the corporate world, seems, well, promising. While the silence from government bureaucrats has been expected – this is one campaign that I, and I know many a South African writer, refuse to let them be lazy on. Let me explain.

The objective of the campaign is to get the nation aware of South African writing while hopefully getting more people to read (we figure part of getting South Africans to read is to get them to know that works are available that they can identify with). With only 18 percent of South African matriculants making it to university, and not all of those graduating, it is quite obvious that there is a need to improve the reading culture in the country. It is my contention that a student who does not read while in high school (or primary at that) will find it difficult to read and do research when at a tertiary institution (IF they make it to tertiary) and I write this from experience. I was a tertiary lecturer last year teaching English Writing. My first exercise with my students was for them to write that oh-so-loved essay by Grade 3 teachers entitled ‘Myself’. I did this so that I could assess the quality of my students’ writing and of course the truth is, no matter how old one is, this essay topic can always be made interesting. The results were appalling. From 30 students, I found only ten percent of the essays worth reading. That’s right. THREE. The students had no idea on how to conjugate a verb – I am not sure whether some of them even knew what a verb was to be honest –and they could not string two sentences together. All in all a horrible state of affairs for children who are supposed to have passed high school. I also found that few of them had read and only one person in class knew who Can Themba was (the only South African writer they knew). I concluded that there was no reading happening. So I gave them an exercise where every week they had to read something and on coming to class, summarise to the rest of the class what they read. They also had to find ten new words weekly, learn their meanings, and use them in sentences. And you know what? Five months later at the end of the semester, I was reading essays (and fictional pieces) that were vastly improved.

In order to get the ball rolling on the campaign, South African writers decided they would like to make South African reading known and sexy to the public (and that’s the reason I am sending a Facebook message to Gerry Elsdon today with a list of light South African reading after she was quoted in City Pulse yesterday saying she is reading Daniel Silva’s Death in Vienna because ‘I read too many serious novels so this book has allowed me to escape from my everyday kind of reading.’). To this end, we have decided that the poster idea to advertise SA literature is a good way to go in addition to our online presence. But instead of preaching top-down, we think it best that South African high school students enter a competition where they design a poster on what it means to Read SA. Because we are writers, running parallel to this would be an essay writing competition, ‘Why I Read’ both of which would run for about a month. The winning poster in each province will be the one used for the campaign while the winning school and student in each province will get a donation of books for their library (we are still working on sweetening the deal for a cash prize). The winning essays will be published in online magazine Storytime as well as earn the school and writers some books (and hopefully a cash prize too). The managers of schools in the deferent provinces have been contacted. Now we await to hear from them on the best way to let the schools know about the campaign. In due course and with more funding, we also hope to do some television adverts pushing the campaign. Ideas for television adverts are already coming in. Last week at the Jenny Crys-Williams book club, Angela Makholwa offered to don a Marilyn dress and stand in a windy street reading. When the dress goes up she modestly covers her face with the book. Or was that Fiona Snyckers?

Since starting the campaign three weeks ago, the greatest challenge had been finding a venue to work from. We contacted various party cadres for the different parties – also known as parliamentarians- in the Education and Arts and Culture portfolios to get them to support this cause. They have been quiet. We also contacted the various MECs of Arts and Culture and Education in each province hoping for a base of operation without any response (see what I mean about lack of government buy-in?). Today that all changed. Thanks to Dr. Pam Nicholls of University of Witswatersrand, ReadSA will be hosted by the Wits Writing centre until December 2010. With a base of operations, this should make it a little easier to fundraise for the campaign and let schools and the general public who may be interested in taking part in the campaign know where to find us.

On an equally positive note, every writer has been keen to work on this with many not just coming up with ideas but getting their hands dirty. Special mention to Damaria Senne who set up the original blogspot page (since moved to BOOK SA) and Facebook page (please look for it and be a fan), Ivor Hartmann who did the brilliant logo and has offered Storytime to publish the winning essays, Megan Voysey who has been tirelessly sending emails to all and sundry to support the campaign from far away Germany (I doubt it would be possible for her to put in more work if she were in the country), and Thando Mgqolozana who compiled all the lists of the different MECs, Registrars and Parliamentarians contacts. But writers are expected to support this anyway. That great friend of South African writers, Ben Williams of BookSA has reminded us yet again (in case anyone had forgotten) why we love him with tangible support of administrative fees for the campaign, co-hosting of the blog, and whatever help we need when we need it. Ditto Frederic Jagu of the Cultural Portfolio at the French Institute.

Now why don’t you come on board and ReadSA? You will love it. For the JDL, while our very own Ndumiso Ngcobo becomes the co-hosting voice of the breakfast show on KayaFM on Wednesday 21st, at 6pm the same evening, Margie Orford launches her next thriller, Daddy’s Girl at Exclusive Sandton. There will be wine, there will be writers, but more importantly you get an autographed copy of Margie’s book which will be priceless in a few years to come (And you get the bragging rights to your friends to say you met and read one of the best of SA of course!). See you there and bring some cash to buy a copy or two of Daddy’s Girl.

PS – does anyone know where PASA is?

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