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PEN SA Calls on the Department of Basic Education to Ensure that All Schoolchildren Have Access to Textbooks

“An education enables that most foundational of rights – freedom of expression. It is key to a vibrant and growing economy as it is key to a cultural life and to literature.”PEN SA President Margie Orford

Writers: Add your name to this call by clicking here and filling in the form.

Books are to education what oxygen is to life. Without books there is no learning, no knowledge, no understanding, no empathy. A book is a wonder – it is the distillation of what we know and how we live together. It is outrageous to think that just because a child is poor they should be cut off from books – the lifeblood of our shared community.

A book – and this includes the textbooks which are for so many millions of South African children the only books they will possess – is companion, guide and freedom. A book – a textbook – gives a child the autonomy they need to study and read at their own pace. This is not a luxury. Books and the hands that hold them give the shape of our shared futures. To deprive children of books – to which they have a right – is tantamount to depriving those same children of food.

With this in mind PEN South Africa supports SECTION27 and Better Education for All (BEFA)’s #TextbooksMatter Campaign. SECTION27 is a public interest law centre that seeks to influence, develop and use the law to protect, promote and advance human rights. BEFA is a community based organisation made up of parents, school governing bodies, learners, educators and other community members in Limpopo.

On 24 November, the South African Department of Basic Education will be appealing the Limpopo textbook judgement which was brought by BEFA (represented by SECTION27) in 2014.

In April 2014, the High Court ruled in favour of that the textbooks shortages were a breach of learners’ rights and ordered the Department to complete delivery within two months. This was the fourth court order in three years to be made against the Department requiring them to deliver all outstanding textbooks to schools in Limpopo. The Court declared that each learner at a public school in Limpopo has the right to be provided with every textbook for the learner’s grade before teaching of the curriculum is due to start. It described the failure to do so as “a violation of the rights to a basic education, equality, dignity”.

The Department is appealing this judgement as it argues that this is tantamount to “an impossible standard of perfection” and that the court should rather ask whether the government has taken “all reasonable measures” to fulfill the right. PEN concurs with SECTION27 and BEFA’s position that the right to basic education is an “unqualified right” and one that should be realized immediately.

There is extensive evidence that books are key to educational success and literacy. Access to textbooks, as well as libraries and books in general, is key to a good education.

As writers we call on the Department of Basic Education to prioritise immediate access to textbooks and libraries for all schoolchildren in South Africa.

We need an education revolution. We need for apathy to fall and for textbooks to flood our schools. #TextbooksMatter #LetOurKidsLearn #LetOurKidsRead


Louis Greenberg
Michael Morris
Kobus Moolman
Rachel Zadok, Short Story Day Africa
Karen Jennings,
Christine Coates, Poet
Alexander Matthews
Vertrees Malherbe
Karin Brynard
Kirsten Miller
Marie Philip
Hsien Lou
Ashraf Kagee
Willemien de Villiers
Harry Owen
Raymond Louw, Vice-President of PEN South Africa
Maxine Case
Angela Quintal
Julia Norrish, Book Dash
Justin Fox
Colleen Higgs
Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa
Rosemund Handler
Beverly Rycroft
Byron Loker
Olivia Forsyth
Danie Marais, Manager of PEN Afrikaans
Jerilyn Miripol
Achmat Dangor
Jacqui L’Ange
Bernard Odendaal
Gillian Slovo
Mike van Graan
Nicholas Kawinga, President of Zambian PEN
Helen Moffett
Dawn Garisch
Jenny Hobbs
Ishtiyaq Shukri
Adre Marshall
Maren Bodenstein
Melissa de Villiers
Mark Heywood, SECTION27
Jenny Crwys-Williams
Mphuthumi Ntabeni, Qhamisa Publishers
Karin Schimke
Arabella Koopman
Izak de Vries, PEN Afrikaans
Jade Jacobsohn, Nal’ibali
Tosin Tume, ASSITEJ
Dessale Abraham, PEN Eritrea
Bridget Pitt, Author
Tade Ipadeola, PEN International
Mohamed Sheriff, PEN Sierra Leone

Writers: Add your name to this call by clicking here and filling in the form.

Refinement and Rawness, Humility and Insight: Helen Walne on Reading Stephen Watson's A Writer's Diary

The DivingA new edition of A Writer’s Diary by Stephen Watson was recently published by Electric Book Works, and launched in a moving event at The Book Lounge. Helen Walne has written about her experience of reading the book, and recalls meeting the man himself.

Walne signed up for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town in 2005, and Watson was her initial, and temporary, supervisor, until that role was taken over by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

Watson passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer, and Walne says in reading the book: “I realise how much I could have learned. How much I would have been understood.”

Walne’s debut novel, The Diving – the result of her Master’s degree – was published last year.

Read the piece:

In A Writer’s Diary, Stephen writes with both refinement and rawness, with both humility and insight, with both heart and appraisal. He rages against cliches and ‘word pollution’, and chisels at language with a sculptor’s hand. Yet, there is never a sense that this is someone who believes he is a custodian of truth. Rather, his are the musings of a writer aware of his own prism – a snow-globe swirling against a sometimes too-thick glass.

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"There's a Fountain of Knowledge that Comes through Reading" - Remembering Lauretta Ngcobo

Let it be ToldAnd They Didn't DieProdigal DaughtersFiki Learns to Like Other People

Novelist and essayist Lauretta Ngcobo passed away in Johannesburg yesterday.

Born in 1931 in Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo was at the forefront of the women’s anti-pass marches in the 1950s. She went into exile in 1963, with her husband, the Pan Africanist Congress founder Abednego Bhekabantu Ngcobo, and settled in England. She had her first novel published in 1981, Cross of Gold. Ngcobo returned to South Africa in 1994.

She received a Lifetime Achievement Literary Award from the South African Literary Awards in 2006, the Order of Ikhamanga in 2008, and was lauded as an eThekwini Living Legend in 2012.

In a video produced for the eThekwini Living Legend award, Ngcobo says she was surrounded by books from a young age, which encouraged her love of reading: “By the age of eight, when I went to school, I was very interested in the written word.”

Ngcobo emphasises the importance of storytelling in learning. “There’s a fountain of knowledge that comes through reading and storytelling,” she says.

“My literary background, if I was to speak widely, was from the traditional stories that our parents taught us.”

Ngcobo also talks about her experience as an aspiring writer at Fort Hare University, where she says she was “almost discouraged in the art of writing”.

“Our culture can destroy children without realising it,” she says. “The professors and lecturers were very interested in men. At the time, there were only 38 girls at Fort Hare. There were 400 men. And when I say 38, I mean from the whole country, and Zimbabwe, and Kenya, and all the African neighbouring states.

“At that point, the professors seemed a lot more interested in male students. No matter how much effort you put in, I realised that they were teaching men, and then there was a mistake or some unfortunate situation where there were women as well. Some of them even had an aggressive attitude when they asked you a question. This prepared me for a situation where I was discouraged from writing. I didn’t think anybody would be interested in what I had to say.”

Ngcobo says that situation changed in London, where she began to “enjoy the company of other writers”.

Watch the video:

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Related stories:

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"No One Stood Up for the Rule of Law" - RW Johnson on the 0% Increase in University Fees

How Long Will South Africa Survive?RW Johnson, the author of How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis, has written an article for Politics Web about the events of last week and what they signify for South Africa’s credit-rating.

Johnson begins his analysis of recent happenings by asking his reader to imagine that they are an analyst for a credit-rating agency. He then asks: “What do you make of the events of the last few weeks?”

The political journalist then unpacks a few significant trends and events from the perspective of ratings agencies. He discusses stealthy privatisation of important institutions, the dilemma of free higher education, unrest resulting from the need for poverty alleviation, the failure of the rule of law, the financial collapse of historically disadvantaged universities, and the way that all of these factors combine to make Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s mission of a balanced budget one that is destined to fail.

Read the article:

The failure of the law

But to go back to the university crisis. By law the fee levels are set by University councils. But in no time the press was showing pictures of Vice Chancellors being hustled and jostled by demonstrators. Adam Habib at Wits capitulated by suspending his university’s rise. This created an impossible situation for all the other universities.

Worse still were photos of Habib kneeling down next to student leader Mcebo Dlamini, the Hitler admirer so recently sacked by Habib – this time in an apparent act of supplication or, at the least, exaggerated respect. Then the Minister stepped in and, out of thin air, conjured up the idea of a 6% cap to fee rises.

This was in blatant disregard of the law which says it is the university councils, not the Minister, who sets fees. This was surpassed only by the President who then announced a 0% increase. Zuma clearly believes that a Zulu chief can just decide the law by personal fiat. The rule of law counted for nothing. No vice chancellor objected. Not one of them stood up for the rule of law.

This was already quite fantastical but it now emerged that neither the President nor the Minister had the slightest idea as to where the money was coming for to pay for the 0% increase, the cost of which was variously estimated at between R2.7 and R4.2 billion. So a committee was set up to work that out consisting of representatives of the students, the vice chancellors and the Ministry. This was ludicrous: none of them could possibly know how to re-arrange the nation’s finances. This will obviously have to be done by the Treasury.
As an analyst what you couldn’t help notice was that every rule of rational or even merely legal decision-making had been broken. Everything was up for grabs and the only real rule was that the government could not withstand determined pressure from any direction. It had given in to the public service workers despite the already widely forecast danger that this could cause another ratings downgrade. And now it gave in to the students with no idea where the money was coming from.

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"Last Week Made Me Realise How Much Like a Blunted Blade I Have Become" - Maire Fisher on #FeesMustFall

BirdseyeA week of student protests aimed at lower fees for tertiary education, and eventually free education, initially left Máire Fisher seething and frustrated.

“My son is a third-year student at UCT who has worked his butt off this year. So when the #FeesMustFall campaign started, I was really pissed off,” the Birdseye author writes in a recent column for The Times. However, as the week unfolded and voices on the ground grew louder than often sensationalist media reports, she came to understand the protests.

Read Fisher’s article to see why she says “last week made me realise how much like a blunted blade I have become” and what lessons she will be taking away from the #FeesMustFall protests:

I didn’t take #FeesMustFall seriously. I’ve grown so used to daily, if not hourly, news of corruption that I couldn’t see what good any further protest would do, besides disrupting study week and having a detrimental effect on exams.

Last week made me realise how much like a blunted blade I have become. I expect things not to work; I expect protests not to work; I’m apathetic and negative. I follow the news, and inject most of it with large doses of cynicism (the same cynicism I experienced at the beginning of the week, thinking the protesting students were probably hoping for exams to be postponed or cancelled because they were failing).

Follow these links for more about Fisher’s debut novel and her thoughts on creative writing:


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The Fixation on Education as a Cure-all is Diverting Us from Tackling Our Problems - Steven Friedman

Race, Class and PowerIn the midst of the raging #FeesMustFall campaign, the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy Steven Friedman, who wrote Race, Class and Power: Harold Wolpe and the Radical Critique of Apartheid, reflected on the myth of education as a cure for all of South Africa’s problems.

“Just about everyone agrees that education is a solution to most of our — and everyone else’s — economic problems. Sadly, just about everyone is probably wrong,” Friedman writes in a recent Business Day column, which he shared as a post on his Facebook page, explaining why there are no miraculous powers hidden in education. He notes that this is not only a local myth but also popular abroad, as seen for example in British prime minister Tony Blair’s call for “education education education”.

“Not only is education not a miracle cure, but the fixation with its supposed healing powers may be diverting us from tackling our problems,” the political scientist says.

Read Friedman’s reflection for a completely different take on the current debate around education:

Education is not the cure-all it is made out to be

JUST about everyone agrees that education is a solution to most of our — and everyone else’s — economic problems. Sadly, just about everyone is probably wrong.

A week in which university students are resisting fee increases is a good time to reflect on a constant theme in our national debate — the wondrous healing powers of education.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that whenever South Africans debate a problem someone will insist, to agreeing nods, that the solution is more and better education.

Nor is this response peculiarly South African: the former British prime minister Tony Blair once claimed that “education, education, education” would solve his country’s problems.

Visiting French economist Thomas Piketty also told us recently of education’s role in reducing inequality here.

Surely this is obvious?

Well, no. Not only is education not a miracle cure, but the fixation with its supposed healing powers may be diverting us from tackling our problems.

Before the accusations begin, the benefits of an education are obvious, particularly to those of us lucky enough to have one. But education is not the cure-all solution it is meant to be.

Recently, Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister and academic economist who is no wild-eyed radical, published an article showing that education is not on its own an engine of economic growth. His numbers show that huge growth in education levels over the past 50 years have not translated into equivalent growth in the economy.

Hausmann pointed out that China’s educational progress lags behind that of Tunisia, Mexico, Kenya and Iran — yet it grew much faster than any of them. He added that if education on its own produced growth, Albania, Armenia and Sri Lanka would not be poverty stricken: “Whatever is preventing these countries from becoming richer, it is not lack of education.”

Nor does evidence necessarily show that education is a fix for inequality: recent research by the Brookings Institution in the US shows that while, not surprisingly, poor people improve their situation if they receive an education, this does not reduce overall inequality.

It is also clear that education often produces inequality — the well-off attend the best schools and universities, while the poor make do with the education system’s crumbs. So it may well be that equality is needed to fix education, not that education is needed to fix inequality.

More than 20 years ago, sociologist Harold Wolpe argued against the idea that education alone could erode inequality if other measures were not taken to attend to the problem. The evidence supports him.
There are many debates about the link between education, on the one hand, and poverty and inequality on the other.

But what is clear is that it is simply not true that education on its own solves these problems — at the very least, other remedies are needed.

This is why harping on education can hold us back — by diverting our attention from other problems that need attention.

A frequent problem is that the education argument becomes a handy excuse for those who are doing well and do not want anything to change.

For them, the argument that “education is the answer” really means that “they” should stop complaining about “us”. Instead, “they” should realise that “we” are doing well because we know much more than them — if “they” want to be like “us”, they should learn how.

The handy thing about this argument is that it places all the blame on people at the bottom and requires no change at all from those at the top. Like the claim that voters need “education” whenever they behave in a way that elites dislike, this is more about making people at the top feel better than about solving problems.

Even where the purpose is not to shift blame on to the poor, focusing on education at the expense of other priorities can worsen problems — an oft-cited example in our region is Zimbabwe, which made substantial gains in education after majority rule, but did not fix the other problems that needed attention if it was to prosper.

Inequality remains our deepest problem — far too deep to be solved by one “fix” alone. It requires a range of solutions, all of which need to be negotiated among the major economic actors and all of which require all to change the way they do things and to give up some of what they have in the interests of a future that can work for all. Education may feature in that process — but it is no substitute for it.

On Friday, the day which saw masses gather at the Union Building in Pretoria to hear president Zuma announce a zero percent increase in tertiary education fees, Friedman spoke to CapeTalk’s John Maytham, saying he believes the campaign won’t hurt the ANC government.

With regards to the #FeesMustFall campaign, Friedman says, “It is important, but it is not as significant as many people think”.

Listen to the podcast to find out why he says so:


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