At a particular time during the liberation struggle a call was made to underground networks of banned political organisations, and by extension oppressed people, to make South Africa ungovernable. Such ends were to be achieved by prolonged industrial protests; civic marches; acts sabotage to vital cogs of the economy. And so the destruction of municipal buildings was generally accepted as revolutionary action since those institutions were the administrative instruments of a racist and illegitimate government. As the country became a democracy in 1994 it was expected that people, especially those who bore the brunt of the old order’s exclusionary policies, would come to understand that the institutions that previously worked against them now had a constitutional responsibility to serve them. Needless to say not everyone got the message because some people still think that looting and torching of public institutions is to spite the government without realizing that they are shooting themselves in the foot.
The recent burning of a library in Mohlakeng is the perfect example of that backward mentality that should’ve been discarded on 10 May 1994 when the late Nelson Mandela became president. The library is a sacrosanct apparatus in the delivery of information for both individual and communal development. In a country where books are particularly expensive, libraries bridge the gap between economics means and access to life improving information. Delivering a lecture titled “Why Our Future Depends On Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”, the British writer Neil Gaiman said:” I was once in New York, and I listened to talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells they are going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.” Seen in the context of communities whose libraries have been burnt, can’t what happens in America also be local reality especially when one considers that libraries, beyond being repositories, are also sanctuaries for young people perceived as ‘uncool’ by their peers? The late Ray Bradbury, author of the acclaimed Fahrenheit 451, a book set in a futuristic society where the possession and reading of books is a crime against the state, once said in a Public Libraries interview: “I didn’t go to college, but when I graduated from high school I went down to the local library and I spent ten years there, two or three days a week, and I got a better education than most people get from universities. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old.” In the absence of libraries because arson or cuts on public budgets, what/who will have carte blanche on the minds of former patrons of the necessary institution that’s a library and what will the social consequence be?
I remember with great fondness the excitement I felt when I became aware of Heineman’s legendary African Writers Series at the Eskia Mphahlele Library. Here were numerous books at my disposal about the strife of colonialism, the jubilation and hopefulness of independence and the disappointing despotic regimes of the post-colonial setting. Of significance and concern was the notable reality that South Africa, the “exceptional one” of the continent, resembled trajectories described Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Matigari and Ayi Kwei Arharm’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s pen that guided me through the tumultuous life of Latin America’s hero of independence, Simon “The Liberator” Bolivar, in The General In His Labyrinth.
While it’s true that libraries aren’t a silver bullet to whatever societal challenges that exist within areas they are found, it’s much better than their unavailability. During the Arab Spring in Egypt some protesters sought to destroy centuries-old information in Bibliotheca in Cairo only to be stopped by a human chain of fellow Egyptians refusing to allow political discontentment to damage the (inter)national jewel. So, when it’s all said and done and nothing but ashes remain where there was once the works of Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer, where will our next Nobel Laureate come from? When Sol Plaatjie’s Native Life In South Africa is nothing but ashe, wouldn’t we lose the context of the land reform process? When the arsonists have had their way, would the same arsonists’ children be given an alternative place where they can probe the minds of the likes of Moeletsi Mbeki; Paulo Coelho; Adam Smith; Malcolm X; Phillippa Yaa Deviliers; Jean Paul Satre; Warren Buffet; John C. Maxwell; Adolf Hitler; Amilcar Cabral; Zukiswa Wanner; Herman Mashaba; Sidney Poiteir; Albert Einstein; Oprah Winfrey, Mahatma Gandhi; Karl Marx; Socrates; or Muzi Kuzwayo to mention but a very few?
If an alien landed on my doorstep and wanted to know about humans, I’d take it to a library since a library is the cheapest travel agency there is and its destruction is a disservice and a crime against the story of human development.