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Quality education begins at home: read Jenny Hobbs's advice on fixing South Africa's literacy crisis

“Education is the new weapon in the liberation struggle, and our youth must arm themselves with books.”
Adelaide Tambo


The literacy crisis among South Africa’s youth is worse than expected. It was recently announced that eight out of 10 grade four pupils still cannot ‘read at appropriate level’. Dr Nic Spaull of Sellenbosch University is quoted saying that an inability to read properly means ‘many pupils never get a firm grasp on the first rung of the academic ladder and fall further and further behind.’

Co-creator and former managing director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival (and author!), Jenny Hobbs, composed the following piece on the necessity of nurturing a love of reading among children, including helpful tips on encouraging a reading culture in South Africa:

Here’s the important thing about quality education: it starts with you, parents and caregivers, from the time babies are born. Talking and singing to them, giving them words and songs and stories, is the best way to ensure that they learn to talk and read confidently. These are the building blocks of education and success in life.

• Parents, gogos, caregivers and child minders: talk and sing often to babies and toddlers, passing on the magic of spoken words and singing.
• Speak from the beginning in your mother tongues, adding words and songs from other languages (especially English) as they grow. Languages are easily picked up by small kids and you will be giving them invaluable free skills.
• As soon as they can sit on your lap, tell them stories and read to them from books, magazines or catalogues, letting them turn the pages – however clumsily! – to discover the excitements on the next page.
• Encourage them to talk, chat and tell their own stories. Teach them the songs you sang and the games you played, family history and traditions. Children who own many words talk easily with friends and adults.
• Take them as young as you can to libraries to enjoy exciting, different books and choose some to bring home. Municipal and community libraries are free, and librarians are always ready to help with advice.
• Give children books as presents. Ask at the library for the late, great Chris van Wyk’s Ouma Ruby’s Secret, which tells the story of how his loving grandma bought him books in second-hand shops, always asking him to choose and then read them out loud to her. He only realised when he grew older that she couldn’t read – like so many elders who were denied education.

• Seeing parents read newspapers and books is inspiring for children. Keep books in your home and make reading a cool thing to do.
• All reading is good reading. Look for book sales and street vendors selling comics and well-priced picture and story books. Visit a library to access the online South African book sites for children and teens.
• Enrol children as soon as possible in early learning centres to expose them to new skills and the first formal steps to reading.
• Fight harder and more fiercely for schools with libraries that actively promote reading and a culture of independent learning.

Note: The government mandates weekly library lessons in schools which all receive library allocations, but random bookshelves are not enough. Libraries need assistants to help readers and control the books. For more information, see the downloadable school library booklet at

• Link older children and teens with the FunDza Literacy Trust for daily reading on their cellphones.
• Readers should recommend books they’ve enjoyed and circulate personal libraries in their communities. Record who has borrowed each book by taking a cellphone photo with them holding it.

Surely it’s time for VAT on books to be abolished – it’s a tax on learning!

Online sites for South African children’s & young adult books:

Book Dash:
Children’s Book Network:

11-year-old Lindiwe Makhoba from Mangaung, Bloemfontein, the 2017 winner of Nal’ibali’s annual Story Bosso contest


Quotes about reading to live by:

It is my wish that the voice of the storyteller will never die in Africa, that all children in the world may experience the wonder of books, and that they will never lose the capacity to enlarge their earthly dwelling place with the magic of stories. – Nelson Mandela

The key to a healthy society is a thriving community of storytellers. Stories are what really make us human. – Franco Sacchi

Reading books at home is an important part of the early development of children during which they confront in a pleasurable activity those human passions of love and hate, of ambition and desire, of change and hope. – Jonathan Jansen

If we want to break down barriers between ourselves across race, linguistic and cultural lines, we must promote reading. Fiction forces you to live in other people’s worlds. It develops our empathetic capacities … it can and does help to build bridges. Reading will help us to humanise each other. In a time of violence, we must spread the word about the power of books to make South African life a little easier. – Eusebius McKaiser

A book can change your life. You can read yourself out of poverty. – Annari van der Merwe

Books not only change the mind, they can change the course of society. – Jonathan Jansen

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture – just get people to stop reading them. – Ray Bradbury

Giveaway! Win a copy of Storytime: 10 South African stories for children

BooksLIVE, in collaboration with Nal’ibali, will be giving away 10 copies of Storytime: 10 South African stories for children – and just in time for the impending 2018 school year!

The first Sunday Times Storybook was launched three years ago to allow children from disadvantaged backgrounds to experience the magic of stories, especially in their own languages. The Sunday Times has distributed two million copies of the first book in all 11 official languages free of charge to school, libraries and reading clubs across the country.

Storytime is a delightful collection of new stories by skilled writers such as Wendy Hartmann, Chris van Wyk, Maryanne Bester, Carole Bloch, Kagiso Legeso Molope, and Tuelo Gabonewe. Various illustrators contributed to the selection of enchanting stories, including Joan Rankin, Paddy Bouma, Shayle Bester, with a gorgeous cover by none other than Madam & Eve‘s Rico!

“We have been fortunate to work with a number of talented South African authors and illustrators in putting together this magical collection of stories. A treasured storybook can be just the thing to spark a love of reading in children and this is precisely our intention – to skill children to become readers for life,” comments Patti McDonald, publisher of Times Media Education’s supplements.

“Books and stories deepen our thinking and understanding by stretching our imagination while encouraging creative problem-solving. To have stories that our children can relate to in their home languages is an invaluable asset that we need to keep growing in our country,” adds Dr Carole Bloch, Director of PRAESA.

If you would like to receive a copy of Storytime, simply tell us why it’s so important to nurture a love of stories and reading among school children who have limited access to books. E-mail your answer to Patti (, and always remember the profound words of Nelson Mandela: “It is my wish that the voice of the storyteller will never die in Africa, that all children in the world may experience the wonder of books, and that they will never lose the capacity to enlarge their earthly dwelling place with the magic of stories.”

Book Bites (3 December)

Published in the Sunday Times

My Absolute DarlingMy Absolute Darling
Gabriel Tallent, HarperCollins, R250

It wasn’t the repulsive violence of this novel that defeated me. By now everyone knows that it features incest between a father and his 14-year-old daughter. It was never going to be a comfortable read, but judging by the euphoric reviews one expected something trenchant and thought-provoking. Instead the characters are straight out of central casting — ghastly gun-toting father spouting undigested philosophy before raping his daughter; she the tough tomboy with little interiority; kindly grandfather, caring-but-puzzled teacher. Tallent ladles on description with a palette knife, perhaps in an attempt to lift it to the heights of “literary fiction”, but ultimately it’s a hollow, crassly prurient book. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Dying Game
Asa Avdic, Penguin Books, R295

Set in 2037, a faceless government coldly manipulates its citizens into overworking at the expense of their personal lives. The central character is Anna Francis, emotionally damaged from a mission on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. On her return to Stockholm she is promised freedom if she completes one final mission – a high-pressure exercise to test the character of citizens being vetted for a top-secret intelligence post. Anna must travel to an island with an alcoholic colonel, a shallow TV host, one of Sweden’s richest men, a hyper-sensitive HR specialist and a key figure from her past who she thought she’d never encounter again. On the first night she will fake her death then monitor the reactions of the candidates. This well-paced Scandi Noir will certainly keep most readers captivated until the final chilling scene. – Efemia Chela @efemiachela

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic
Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, R285

Hoffman’s prequel to her bestseller Practical Magic is the delightful backstory of the magical Owens sisters’ eccentric aunts, Jet and Frances, and their mysterious brother Vincent. It’s late ’50s New York and the three children are brought up in a strictly no magic house by their parents. But their power cannot be harnessed and when they find out who they are, disaster happens. They realise they can’t love without consequences due to an ancestral curse. A fantastical tale of doomed love. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details

A Twist in the Tail for township kids: Meet Chloe De La Harpe, children’s literacy activist and head of the ‘Story Tails’ initiative

Nal’ibali Column 19: Term 4. Originally published in the Daily Dispatch (4 December 2017) and Herald (7 December 2017)

By Carla Lever

Chloe De La Harpe

Tell us a little about the work you do.

I work with building remedial classes within schools and after school programmes with children in Imizamo Yethu: an informal settlement in the greater Hout Bay Valley in Cape Town. This year, we relocated into an informal crèche within the township itself. We focused on the 4-6 year olds with emergent literacy in isiXhosa. We work with two incredibly passionate isiXhosa-speaking local teachers, both of whom are currently studying through UNISA. We have found the children grasped the isiXhosa letters and sounds easily and at a wonderful speed. They’ll be entering school next year with a great foundation for literacy in their home language.

You’ve said before that your primary role as a teacher is to advertise books – enthusiastically and incessantly. Why is that?

I read a survey once that changed my life. It stated that the one factor that affects a child more than reading to them is living in a home where parents read for their own personal enjoyment. I’d never heard this before. I wanted to jump up in public and shout out loud! It was my ‘AHA moment’! Everything else in our life is marketed: clothes and technology and hair products, but reading is never marketed. I truly believe the saying that ‘no child is born a reader: an adult makes a child a reader’ and so it is our job, as an adult or teacher, to advertise books!

You bring such a range of creative approaches to learning activities – you make it a form of play. Tell us about some of those.

What we truly wanted to look at was how to create a desire to read – for a child to grow the motivation to pick up a book independently of being told to do it. So two ways we attempt this are through The Cocoa Club and Story Tails.

The Cocoa Club was a small, read aloud book club with blankets, pillows and hot chocolate among school-age kids. Club members got warm and comfortable and slurped noisily as all of us read aloud to each other. The feeling of exclusivity, of being part of ‘a family’ and sharing a safe space created the perfect environment, but it was the books donated to us by FUNDZA that really stole the show. Stories written by locals about local township experiences just amazed and hooked the students immediately! It was lovely to see a list of students wanting to be in the Cocoa Club grow and grow – I’m pretty devastated that we won’t have enough funding to carry this project on in 2018.

We will be carrying on our Story Tails project, though, and it’s a real winner! Students visit with the wonderful DARG animal shelter in Hout Bay and do facilitated story time with the cats and dogs, making the experience a real treat. Additionally, DARG selects special Reading Assistant Dogs which I take into one local primary school library to sit and listen to shy students read during story time. There’s no listener as non-judgemental as a dog and anxious students really respond to reading aloud to them! We are so grateful here to be donated books by the awesome Book Dash charity for this project, who have them in a fantastic range of languages.

So to look back on our goals: there’s a special experience, there’s a new association to reading and there’s the adult joining in by reading their own books alongside everyone else.

Where do you access new books? What resources do you make use of?

We have been hugely lucky to receive resources from Fundza, Book Dash, Word Works and much help from Shine on launching. I love the way all the projects share the same goal and same love!

Do you find that having access to books in the kids’ mother tongue makes a big difference in how they are able to engage?

I am a massive fan of mother tongue books and the need for mother tongue story time as early as possible. I personally have found they make a huge difference! I adore the childrens’ wonder, enjoyment and sparkle in their eyes. Every day I do this is rewarding.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

Buy discounted Book Dash titles and donate to the SHINE Literacy Trust!

Via Book Dash

Have we got a festive season surprise for you!

Ten of your favourite Book Dash titles will be sold in top Woolworths’ stores for just R25 each, or R60 for three!

But that’s not all: even at that low price, for every book bought, another gets donated to the SHINE Literacy Trust to give to kids and caregivers involved in their programmes. That means that if you buy six books for just R120, six more get given to a kid who needs them. Isn’t that awesome? Look out for them in a store near you, and we thank you in advance for support!

As always, thanks to our amazing creative volunteers: you are at the heart of this organisation.

All income generated will be channelled into creating, translating and printing more free books for kids. And finally, to Woolworths for jumping on the Book Dash bandwagon: moving ever closer to our vision of every child owning a hundred books by the age of five! #bookdash #everychild #100books

The list of shops are, Western Cape: Constantia Village, V&A Waterfront, Tygervalley and Milner Road, KZN: Gateway, Westville Pavillion, Delcairn, Balito Lifestyle Centre, Mackeurtan Avenue, Lillies Quarter. Gauteng: Sandton City, Nicolaway, Norwood Mall, Lonehill, Hydepark, Maroun Square, Lifestyle Crossing, Kyalami Mall, Farrarmere and Meyersdal

Watch: Pumla Dineo Gqola discusses Reflecting Rogue, normalising freedom and undoing patriarchy on Afternoon Express

Reflecting Rogue is the much anticipated and brilliant collection of experimental autobiographical essays on power, pleasure and South African culture by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola.

In her most personal book to date, written from classic Gqola antiracist, feminist perspectives, Reflecting Rogue delivers 20 essays of deliciously incisive brain food, all extremely accessible to a general critical readership, without sacrificing intellectual rigour.

These include essays on ‘Disappearing Women’, where Gqola spends time exploring what it means to live in a country where women can simply disappear – from a secure Centurion estate in one case, to being a cop in another, and being taken by men who know them.

‘On the beauty of feminist rage’ magically weaves together the shift in gender discourse in South Africa’s public spheres, using examples from #RUReferenceList, #RapeAtAzania and #RememberingKhwezi.

Reflecting Rogue takes on both the difficulties and rewards of wilfully inhabiting our bodies in ‘Growing into my body’, while ‘Belonging to myself’ uncovers what it means to refuse the adversarial, self-harming lessons patriarchy teaches us about femininity.

In ‘Mothering while feminist’ Gqola explores raising boys as a feminist – a lesson in humour, humility and patience from the inside. In ‘Becoming my mother’ the themes of fear, envy, adoration and resentment are unpacked in mother-daughter relationships. While ‘I’ve got all my sisters with me’ explores the heady heights of feminist joy, ‘A meditation on feminist friendship with gratitude’ exposes a new, and more personal side to ever-incisive Gqola.

Reflecting Rogue comes to a breath-taking end in ‘A love letter to the Blackman who raised me’.

Gender activist, award-winning author and full professor of African Literature at Wits University, Pumla Dineo Gqola has written extensively for both local and international academic journals. She is the author of What is Slavery to Me? (Wits University Press), A Renegade Called Simphiwe (MFBooks Joburg) and Rape: A South African Nightmare (MFBooks Joburg).

Here Pumla discusses normalising freedom, undoing patriarchy, and the state of South Africa’s universities with Jeannie D and Bonnie Mbuli:


Book details