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Asmal: Launch of Readathon 2003 (16/05/2003)

16th May 2003


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Date: 16/05/2003
Source: Ministry of Education
Title: Asmal: Launch of Readathon 2003


Board of Directors: Read Education Trust
Officials from various government departments
Invited Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

I want to start by thanking READ for inviting me to address you on this special occasion. Today we have gathered here to "Spread the Word" about the READATHON 2003 campaign, and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to remember and remind fellow South Africans that literacy is an important priority of government. The READATHON 2003 theme, "Spread the Word" strengthens the message that literacy skills are fundamental building blocks for lifelong learning, for personal and social development, and for building a successful nation.

The economic and social health of our people depends on building a literate nation - one that is able to read widely for practical purposes, and also for pleasure. This means making the current generation more aware of the pleasure and importance of reading in their daily lives. It also means ensuring that they have the required skills for our modern society, which includes the skills of writing, computer literacy, and numeracy.

I have said it before and I say it again: illiteracy is arguably the biggest remaining obstacle to true freedom in our country. Illiteracy curbs that freedom, as it denies people dignity, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and preventing them from participating fully in society. And worst of all, it reinforces the negative stereotypes of ignorance and stupidity. This labelling is very often invalidated by the extraordinary abilities and achievements of people who are illiterate, or barely literate. The late Comrade Walter Sisulu was a shining example of how the absence of formal schooling does not equate to an absence of great intellectual ability. And of course in many such people one would find the kind of humility that is not common among highly qualified individuals.

The South African National Literacy Initiative (SANLI) and Masifunde Sonke are two campaigns set up by the Ministry to address the challenges of illiteracy, and to promote a love of reading. SANLI has managed to mobilise sufficient resources, largely from the Department for International Development (DfID) and the European Union, to enable it to present literacy classes to more than 200 000 newly enrolled adult learners this year. The majority of these learners are from the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, where the effects of illiteracy compound the difficulties experienced by the rural poor.

The Masifunde Sonke project is tasked to profile reading, and to encourage stakeholders to promote reading. I am therefore very pleased with the response from key role players like READ, an organisation, which has embraced the national call to promote a culture of reading in our society. Thanks to such collaborative efforts between literacy providers and the Department of Education, our efforts will undoubtedly bear fruit.

The Masifunde Sonke project is the instrument we use to "spread the word", and numerous reading promotion messages are seen on our television channels and heard on radio, owing to our strong working relationship with the SABC. The Department is also endeavouring to revive the culture of reading African literature written in our indigenous languages. This is done through our collaboration with the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA), on Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. Collections of these books have been distributed to a selected number of schools around the country; another element of "Spreading the Word".

Our relationship with READ is intact because of the organisation's immense contribution towards the eradication of illiteracy, and the establishment of a culture of reading and learning. Since it was registered 27 years ago (1976 - 2003), READ has emerged as a pioneer in bringing the joy of reading to thousands of children and other illiterate people.

I therefore urge all South African schools, libraries, literacy organisations and parents to "Spread the Word" about the importance and value of reading. The objective of the READATHON 2003 campaign is to emphasise that reading is indeed a fun and an enjoyable activity, which is not the way many have experienced it. Many adults have only had bad experiences with reading: letters and official documents would most often bring bad news - of illness or death, a summons, or a notice of relocation. Some children have similar views: for them, books are a barrier to achievement, when they are not understandable, and serve only to make them look ignorant. These negative perceptions are often reinforced by the formal requirements we sometimes tag onto the reading: the need to write a review, to retell the story and so on. While these have a place, we must also allow for unstructured reading, for the sheer joy of doing so, and without any obligations except to stimulate your own imagination.

READATHON is a powerful advocacy event aimed at raising the consciousness of all South Africans about the importance of working together to ensure a literate, informed and well-read society.

The campaign has become a uniquely South African programme, fully integrated into the cultural life of the many participating communities, and therefore fully owned by those communities. In almost all schools it has become an established part of the calendar, and often prompts some quite dramatic challenges to get children reading, such as the school principal who sat on the roof of his school until every child had finished his or her book.

The challenge now is to broaden the base of participation, and to encourage all communities, including teachers, pupils, parents and local businesses, to become involved. I would also appeal to provincial and local government structures, which are responsible for community libraries, to use whatever influence they can to provide the resources to get people reading.

Education is one of the greatest challenges facing Africa today. Our enormous linguistic and cultural diversity is an asset in this regard: we should be able to produce something for everyone. But economic hardship and negative perceptions are obstacles that work against all our attempts to create and sustain equal access to quality education for all. The resulting illiteracy, which in some parts of the African continent reaches levels in excess of 80%, hinders political and economic stability, and disables public health efforts. In South Africa we are fortunate enough to be in a position to be recording falling illiteracy levels, as an increasing number of adults complete the ABET level 1 programme and fewer children enter society without the benefit of a basic education. But there is no room for complacency; literacy is not a fixed asset - unless it is utilised regularly and properly, we lose the skill and the interest in reading.

I would like to conclude by wishing you all a most successful READATHON week in September. I urge every young person, especially the artists and musicians, to take up the challenge and help READ to spread the word. Masifunde Sonke and the Read Educational Trust will jointly celebrate International Literacy Day on the 8th September 2003 as part of the Readathon week. I encourage learners who will participate in the READATHON activities to also participate in the Literacy Day celebrations, where they will have an opportunity to showcase their work and talent. Details of the event will be made available through READ and Masifunde Sonke offices.

I thank you, and wish you well.


Issued by Ministry of Education
16 May 2003


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