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'It's a fact: darkies just dont read'

By unknown | May 07, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

THERE'S an old saying about black people that leaves me profoundly ambivalent about how I should react. It says that if you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book.

THERE'S an old saying about black people that leaves me profoundly ambivalent about how I should react. It says that if you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book.

I hated it when I first heard it decades ago. It seemed like racist stereotyping of black people. Besides, it didn't appear to be borne out by my reality, growing up in Soweto.

People around me, even tsotsis, seemed to be reading newspapers, magazines, struggle poetry books, novels and journals.

Small wonder that even Joseph Mahlangu, the notorious "Lovers' Lane serial killer", had been reading James Hadley Chase's You Find Him: I'll Fix Him when he was nabbed in the late 70s.

Admittedly, some of the books were not particularly good, mostly falling in the crime fiction genre, but, hey, they were books...

There are also times when I think anger and revulsion are not the appropriate response to the unflattering expression. Maybe it would be more helpful to take it as the proverbial kick in the rear needed to ensure it can never be true of you and yours.

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the expression is not entirely off the mark.

The Exclusive Books branch at the new and imposing Maponya Mall, the only general bookshop in Soweto, has closed because of poor patronage. Meanwhile, cellphones, music and expensive clothing stores keep doing a roaring business.

That's why my heart sank when I saw the unflattering saying being lent some credence in the Sowetan of Tuesday April 20. One Cleo Bonny, a self-styled reading ambassador, heard a school principal repeat the damning statement about the supposed aversion to books among black people and decided to put it to the test.

He snuck a R100 note into an adventure novel in January to see if anybody would find it. When he returned to the school four months later, the money, a princely amount to your average township child, was exactly where he had left it. Nobody had opened the book.

It is not as if there was something wrong with the book. Dlamini says the book, The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, was not the only one that lay unopened. All the pupils he spoke to told him that none of them, or their schoolmates, read any books in the school library.

The story, by Penuell Dlamini, should worry every parent, especially those who sacrifice so much to give their children an education, which is the only noble ticket most youth have to escape poverty and thrive.

Elaine Ntlailane, a head of department at the school, bemoaned the absence of an interest in books. "The culture of reading should start at home, when kids are young."

The chaps at Sowetan would have been justified in heaving a loud, collective sigh of relief when they ran Dlamini's story. At least they can no longer be accused of further complicity in discouraging reading books among their readers.

The newspaper was harshly criticised recently for dumping its book review section. One of the critics flayed the newspaper's current leadership for having betrayed its educational role. The criticism did not fall on deaf ears. The section was reinstated.

I'm reminded here of author Sihle Khumalo's scathing and provocative column in Sunday Times of September 13 last year, headlined "It's a fact: darkies just don't read".

Khumalo wrote: "In this country, with almost 50 million people, a book has to sell only 5000 copies to be regarded as a bestseller. That can mean only one thing: South Africans - almost 90 percent are black and about 95 percent of those African - just do not read."

He added: "The lack of reading is a black thing, irrespective of where you live. It is way more fashionable to have loads of music than to be truly knowledgeable. But then again, would it suit the ANC government all of a sudden to have a vast number of broad-minded, knowledgeable black South Africans?"

One thing I can say is that lack of interest in reading books is not an exclusively black problem. Self-induced ignorance is a national problem. It's hard not to fall victim to the dominant pop culture that considers reading books uncool and nerdy.


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