Every human society relies on the experience of its older members as the foundation on which to build what is new. Since the birth of the human race our unique ability to pass on our knowledge of the world, our experience in life and our achievements to our off-spring has enabled our species not only to survive but to prosper. Observation is probably the first means by which humans instructed their young. But as the off-springs powers of comprehension improved, human beings educated and socialized their young through speech. The faculty of speech, found only among humans, is extremely versatile. It can be used to command. It can be used to comfort. It can be used to instruct. It can be used to express affection. It can be used to express anger. It can be used to communicate fear. It can be used to convey anxiety. It can be used to express joy as well as sorrow. Constant communication and the exchange of experience are also unique to humans which have given us an incomparable competitive edge over other species.
The human family is unique in its ability and desire to externalize itself through acts of creation reflecting its experience, its environment, its own life as a species and its imagination. The human sings, dances, sculpts, carves, paints, recites poetry, tells stories and records its memories because nature endowed it with certain unique abilities. The human is obsessively curious, always posing the question: why? By consistently posing that question, the human animal arrived at a second, and perhaps more significant one: why not?
The search for the answer to that second question stirred humans to change and constantly transform their environment, and by so doing to make and re-make themselves. Artistic creation is an important dimension of that search and of our urge to create a better world.
The earliest attempts to render the words, thoughts, ideas and feelings of a human as writing were executed on African soil, along the Nile River valley. The invention of writing was probably the most profound cultural revolution experienced by humankind. Mastery of the art of writing was extremely empowering. Its consequences have shaped and reshaped our universe in ways that no one could have anticipated. From then on communication among humans was freed from the need for personal contact. It became possible to communicate directly and to receive accurate communication from some-one who was not there in person. Through the written word humanity is able to commune with the present, the past and the future. Liberated from the constraints of time and space, the thoughts, opinions, emotions, beliefs, values and experiences of people acquired infinite mobility, even immortality.
Africans have recorded their thoughts and emotions in verse, rock art, sculpture and writing for centuries. The act of recording made them eminently transferable from one place to another, from one time to another, from one environment to another, from one people to another. Reading and writing are the cornerstones of literacy. Those who can read and write thus became the custodians of cultural heritage.
Among the amaRharabe clans, living in the western borderlands of the early 19 century Xhosa kingdoms, there emerged a religious figure, Ntiskana, the son of Gabha of the Cirha clan. It is said that this young father, a person of some substance in his own community, began experiencing visions that exhorted him to convert to a new religion. After one particularly acute such experience, he went down to the river and washed-off the red ochre with which the Xhosa people decorated their bodies and adopted this new religion.
Carrying a wooden cross of his own construction, Ntiskana began preaching about 200 years ago. As he had no bell, he used his voice to call his followers to prayer. The chant, known today as Ntsikanas hymn, represented an interesting intersection - cultural change propagated through a traditional mode of expression. Like the Muslim muezzin or azhan, Ntsikana employed a chant to convey his message of change and his call to his people to embrace a new world outlook. Ntsikanas visions, instructing him to read, some authorities say, stimulated the drive for literacy amongst his followers, who constituted one of the earliest communities of Christian Africans.
As a cultural figure Ntsikana represents the face of an indigenous African modernism, concealed within the cocoon of the Christian faith. In social as well as religious terms he was a prophetic figure as a portent of the future of both African communities in South Africa and of Christianity among the Africans.
Ntsikanas hymn, like his mission, represents the van of an African modernism that still values and seeks to preserve every aspect of African tradition and culture that has universal significance. Ntsikana was not a subjugated colonial subject, seeking solace in the faith of his conquerors. He and his growing band of followers were free people, living within their own kingdom under their own rulers, living under their own laws, who had exercised a conscious choice to embrace and adapt to their own uses the skills and the technology that the White colonial society possessed in such abundance. Christianity, freely chosen rather than imposed, represented the ideology and the lifestyle of these modernists chose.
Christian Missionaries had been active among the Black communities in South Africa since the establishment of the Moravian mission station at Genadendal during the latter part of the seventeenth century. Missionaries came in the wake of the colonial soldier and administrator. But, once a colonial presence had been established, they often preceded colonial officialdom into unconquered territories. Such was the case with many late 18 century and 19 century missionaries. Thus Moffat preceded the British colonial office among the Tswana and Ndebele. So too in their day did van de Kemp, Williams, Reade and Phillip precede the colonial conquest of the eastern Cape. Christian teachings were among the numerous ideas the un-colonized Africans became accustomed to within their rapidly changing society. The ambiguities of colonialism were most starkly represented by the ever present threat of aggression on the one hand, but there were also the new opportunities offered by the adaptation of European artifact, skill and technology, on the other.
To Ntsikana and his followers the book, the written word, and literacy were the gateway to the Fountain of Knowledgebecause of important place they occupy in the preservation and transmission of information, knowledge and experience. They are an indispensable educational tool. Hence the importance of an event like todays, marking library week.
It is most appropriate that the South African library week is being marked in a rural setting, far from the hub-bub and bright lights of the city. On the 27 and 28 May 2005 we launched the National Literature Exhibition which included lifetime achievement awards for writers in all the languages recognised by our constitution. The National Literature Exhibition is part of a Department of Arts and Culture led campaign to promote use of the indigenous African languages in literature.
We have eleven official languages. The Department of Arts and Culture, as the guardian of our collective heritage, is committed to ensuring the equitable development and use of all these languages. It cannot be regarded as a coincidence that the major social revolutions around the world have been associated with literary movements. The first African writers in South Africa regarded themselves as the heralds of a new era of great expectations for the African people. Literacy, they thought, would open up the doors of world culture and the immense storehouse of human knowledge to their people. Those who sought to exclude Africans permanently from such vistas, in turn tried to devise various means of ensuring that they remained non literate, innumerate and as un-informed as possible. As a government that takes seriously the challenge of making the 21 century an African century, we are determined to ensure that all our people have access to literacy. The library services are essential to that endeavour.
As Chinua Achebe explained through one of his characters, there is much more of crucial, social significance to storytelling in our era, the writing of books - than mere entertainment. Reading, writing and books as literary and cultural artifacts, have become an essential part of our heritage. That makes it imperative for government, non governmental organizations and the private sector to work together in partnerships that will create greater access to reading materials, to nurture writing potential and stimulate publishing for more of our people. The importance of cultural expression, the full creative potential of the reading, writing and publishing sector will only be realized when all the diverse people of our country and the region have reasonable access to the means to write, to read and to be published. This imposes extremely serious obligations on our writers.
South African writers of our day have a critical role to play in fashioning new paradigms and expanding the boundaries of literary expression. The times we live in require them to go beyond the binary opposites that dominated the literature of the past. South Africa lives in an entirely different terrain. Struggle in our day has to waged on a number of different fronts. Our writers have to wrestle with the challenges of nation building, of national reconciliation, of nurturing a human rights culture, of poverty eradication, of fighting the scourge of HIV and AIDS, and of redefining Africas place in the world. By so saying we are not suggesting that they should now become propagandists for government or for other players in our plural society. We merely highlight these issues because these are the existential dilemmas South Africans, and indeed the African continent confronts.
I have, on other occasions, indicated that one of the major challenges confronting aspiring writers is the absence of a viable and sustainable literary journal that would provide an appropriate platform to advance their skills. We have made some progress towards the establishment of such a national literary journal. But, to develop the craft of writing in the absence of a wide readership would be foolhardy and wasteful. We need to engender a critical mass readership in all South African languages. In the not too distant future we will be approaching writers to see what they are prepared to contribute towards the attainment of that goal.
This year government is making available one billion rands, to be spent over three years, to upgrade, improve and expand the libraries in this country. Where there are no libraries, we will use these funds to build them. Where the libraries are deficient, we will use these funds to improve them. We shall also begin installing all the new types of equipment that have come on stream during this new information revolution. During the course of this year, the DAC is developing a new funding model to ensure that the funds for community libraries are properly utilized. We want to transform the library sector so that our libraries become vehicles for the delivery of a number of services, located at the heart of communities. LIASA, the professional body of librarians, will be assiduously courted to be our partner in this effort. The other spheres of government, especially local government which bears the principal responsibility for library services, is another important stake holder.
I promised not to be long, so I will now draw the threads together.
The theme for this week is: Libraries: Partners in learning, nation building and development. Libraries are repositories of the accumulated knowledge of the human family. It is through them that we can discover, share the thoughts and experience the emotions of others who lived centuries before us. It is through libraries as well that we can keep in touch with people and cultures that are miles away from us. Libraries also serve to keep us abreast of the rest of the world; they have indeed made the world a much smaller place than it used to be. In addressing this conference, I trust, my words have conveyed to you, who serve at the rock face of this crucial community service, the great importance our government, and indeed our people, attach to the service you deliver.