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Knowledge in flames as libraries burn


It is ironic, not to mention pathetic, in a country whose education system is in crisis that the default setting of scores of demonstrators nationwide is to burn libraries. Not to mention, clinics, municipal offices and seemingly anything else that draws their ire. But libraries, for some obscure reason, always seem to be prime targets – with at least 20 libraries and their valuable contents being indiscriminately torched since 2009, with a cost of between R1 million and R3 million per library. The cost, of course, in lost knowledge to thousands of readers is inestimable.


In direct contrast to this self-destructive behaviour, South African Library week was celebrated in March, with a number of media reports praising the “progress” made in SA when it comes to libraries and their associated computer/audio-visual centres. Despite the sterling efforts of organisations such as the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA) and many others, it would seem that, even more than 70 years on, people still do not heed the lessons of the past. In Nazi Germany, in the dark days of the 30’s, book-burning was a national pastime. All you had to do was wear a brown shirt, a swastika armband and be a brutal, ignorant thug. Voila! Instant bonfire. In 2014, South Africa, the only thing different in that equation is a wardrobe change. Nazi regalia is now definitely frowned upon whereas books still blaze merrily. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
LIASA president, Ujala Satgoor, has said that his organisation “deplores the wanton burning of libraries during protest action.” He went on to add “Libraries have become symbols of local government’s inability to resolve local issues.” Former state librarian Peter Lor has also recently commented that this kind of destruction was consequence of “deep frustration bordering on despair, a failure of grassroots democracy and the tendency of ordinary people still to associate municipal institutions with agencies of government control, as they were during apartheid.” 20 years into South Africa’s “new democracy” and we are still making excuses for thuggery and arson by laying the ills of our nation at the door of that tired old scapegoat - apartheid.


It’s time to move on. The 2011 school monitoring survey conducted by the Department of Basic Education, found there were 10 721 schools in South Africa without functional libraries. The Dept. has said that it needs R16.5 billion to provide libraries to schools over a 10 year period. This, realistically, and given the abysmal track record of the Dept., is probably never going to happen on any meaningful scale. It is therefore imperative that existing libraries are protected at all costs. If the appalling actions of criminal pyromaniacs are not stopped immediately, generations of young South Africans will continue to receive inadequate and sub-standard educations – the results of which will haunt multiple future generations, doomed to remain bound by chains of ignorance stronger than any apartheid bondage.

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