Thursday, 8 May 2014

Our children, our future

While adult South Africans were voting yesterday for their next government, I was thinking about young people whose futures will be shaped by the MPs who will sit in SA's next parliament.

My thoughts went to the four young women in the picture above. From left to right, they are Lelethu Sobekwa, Sinovuyo Nikelwa, Thulethu Nomtshatso and Ntandokazi Baxana and came with Kathy Barr, their volunteer tutor from New York. They were truly the stars of last month's 'Meet the Author' session that the Reading Association of South Africa (RASA) organised at Exclusive Books in Walmer, Port Elizabeth.

They had read some of my novels and were brimming with questions and comments. When I asked what else they were reading, I was blown away by their excitement over the journeys they were making through books.

It hasn't always been this way. Only three years ago, near the end of their primary schooling in Joe Slovo township, like many others in their class, they were still struggling to read.

That began to change significantly when they joined the after-school Artworks for Youth programme. They live in the eastern Cape, one of the poorest regions in South Africa. You can glimpse life in Joe Slovo township through photos and drawings by young people here.

Artworks for Youth has been creating its own library through the help of its volunteers. The schools in which they work don't have libraries - and their learners are hungry for books. What a contrast to the schools I had visited just a few weeks earlier for World Book Day in the UK.

At Reading School (good name!), I was interviewed by Sushrut Royyuru and Michael Li (good interviewers!) in a magnificent library. My visit was part of a Book Festival in a week devoted to the value of reading, highlighting the pleasures and benefits that will last a life time.

Young South Africans, like the four stars whose vitality sparkled so brightly at my 'Meet the Author' session in Port Elizabeth, equally deserve the very best that can nourish their minds and spirits. They are inheriting huge challenges that will require all their intelligence and courage.

Dr Nick Taylor, head of the National Education, Evaluation and Development Unit in South Africa, has spoken openly of the literacy level of Grade 5 pupils being a "national catastrophe".  This is despite billions of rand spent on teacher training. Something is drastically wrong with the teaching of reading in the majority of state schools.

Following a visit to eastern Cape schools organised by the NGO Equal Education, that included visiting the toilets, the writer Sindiwe Magona was reported to say:
"We are sitting on a volcano and it will explode. What will happen when the children realise they have been conned?"

Elections are a time for taking stock - and it is a time of promises. Now it's time the promises concerning ALL our children are met.


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