Literacy defeats ignorance

Victor Mecoamere

Victor Mecoamere

Books occupy an important place in the preservation and transmission of information, knowledge and experience, Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan said.

Jordan was speaking during the 2008 South African Literary Awards in Johannesburg recently.

He said: "Writing gave us the ability to record our past, transmit knowledge from one generation to another and to teach our offspring about the essential values of humankind."

Jordan's department is leading the awards' nation-building partnership, which features Nutrend Publishers, Sowetan and wRite Associates.

The minister also launched Band of Troubadours, a compilation of the prose, poetry, fiction, short stories and novels of the 43 emerging and established writers who have been recognised, acknowledged and rewarded through the awards between 2005 and 2007.

Jordan said: "This partnership is a token of the Department of Arts and Culture's commitment to establishing sustainable public-private partnerships and making a positive contribution to the publishing industry.

"We have supported these literary awards both for their intrinsic value and as a token of the government's commitment to eradicate illiteracy and to nurture a society of informed citizens," Jordan said.

He said that illiteracy had, through the ages, been one of the means by which to render people powerless.

"During the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade it was considered absolutely essential that slaves be denied the skills of reading and writing," Jordan said.

"One of the ironic outcomes this has resulted in is the history of Afrikaans literature in South Africa.

"It is a little talked about fact but the first books in Afrikaans were written in the Arabic script by literate Indonesian and Malayu resisters who had been deported to the Cape as slaves after being defeated in battle by the Dutch," Jordan explained.

He said it had only recently come to light that Khitab, an old manuscript that had been preserved over two centuries by a Muslim family in Simonstown, was not as the family had thought sacred writings, but rather a diary of an ancestor who had been sold into slavery by the Dutch colonisers of Indonesia and South Africa.

"What is more is that though he employed Arabic script, the language is actually in the Dutch spoken in the Cape during the late 18th century," Jordan said.

"We are still engaged with the elders of the Muslim community of the Cape in an endeavour to have these manuscripts released for systematic study and analysis.

"South Africa has just recently hosted the exhibition of the Timbuktu Manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Library of Mali.

"Who knows what lies hidden in the manuscripts that have been gathering dust in homes in Cape Town, Simonstown, the Hex River Valley and in other parts where there were Indonesian and Malayu slaves?" Jordan asked.

He said South Africa owed it to humanity that "we uncover these", adding that literacy was thus a vital and empowering capacity for both the individual and society in the 21st century.

"This is why the development of literature and increased literary awareness remain among the top priorities of the Department of Arts and Culture."

Jordan said the department had established a national literary journal, Baobab, which is now in its second issue.

"We invite both old and new writers to support and contribute to this journal," Jordan appealed.

"Its relevance and survival are in the hands of South Africa's writers. This year alone we have embarked on a course that will hopefully lead to the revival of writing in the African languages."

Yet another literary development project, the Xihlovo Xa Vutivi project, established in 2005, seeks to put into practice the vision of the Freedom Charter by providing publishing opportunities for aspirant writers in all official languages and across all genres.

"It is a collaborative effort between the Department of Arts and Culture and Umgangatho Media and Communications," Jordan said.

The minister said in mid-November the first editions of the reprinted African languages classics came off the press in the shape of one novel in each one of the nine official African languages.