Magazine article American Libraries

Libraries in South Africa: Extending the Reach

Magazine article American Libraries

Libraries in South Africa: Extending the Reach

Article excerpt


South Africa's second post-apartheid elections took place on June 2 of this year. Having given most of his 80 years to either politics or prison, President Nelson Mandela is stepping aside in favor of his successor, Thabo Mbeki, who was elected in a landslide victory and sworn in June 16. Mandela's challenge was to somehow keep the peace for the past four years in a nation where less than 15% of the population controls the vast majority of the resources, while offering political participation to the other 85%. (For a view of the state of library services in South Africa soon after the country's first democratically held election, see AL, October 1995, p. 878-879.)

Mandela has largely succeeded, despite reports of rising violence and economic worries. It's hard to eat political promises and even harder to turn them into the skills and resources needed to grow food. The next government has to address the need for extending those resources, ranging from land and housing to education and employment, to the entire population. Library services are not at the top of most politicians' lists, but librarians Susan Dymond and Melba Geca are rewriting some of those lists. They're getting help from Friends and volunteers, from writers and teachers, but they could always use more.

Dymond is a librarian at the Hour Bay Library in one of Cape Town's seaside suburbs. It's not quite Cape Cod or Malibu, but it could be mistaken for many upper middle-class American suburbs, with the added attraction of a gorgeous coastline. Geca is also a librarian at Hout Bay, having just graduated with honors from the University of the Western Cape. She grew up in Guguletu, one of the black townships on the Cape Flats. It's harder to find an American equivalent for the townships - they are reminiscent of urban public housing projects, but the housing is a combination of small, square, concrete block houses and shanties made of any material at hand.

In Cape Town, the townships are clustered on a treeless plain to the south and west. Their names are a glossary of resistance and survival - Guguletu (Our Pride), Langa (Sun), Nyanga (Moon), Mitchell's Plain, Crossroads, Khayelitsha (New Home). They are all the more striking for being surrounded by the spectacular and affluent seaside suburbs that stretch down both the east and west coasts of the Cape, with a mix of colored townships and middle-class white suburbs in between. Cape Town had a reputation for being marginally more liberal than other parts of the country, and it remains somewhat less embattled. Still, the lines between township and suburb, black and white, are firmly drawn.

With a little "Imizamo Yethu"

In the early 1990s, an "informal settlement," otherwise known as a squatter camp, sprang up on the hills just outside of Hour Bay. The land, formerly held by the forestry department, became home to more than 8,000 people almost overnight. The community is called Imizamo Yethu, which means "our effort" in Xhosa, the most common tribal language among its residents.

"When Imizamo Yethu appeared, I knew we had to find a way to get library services to the community," Dymond says. "When I first suggested it, people told me it was too soon. They were worried about getting roads and water in first. But I kept in touch with the social workers and others who were working with the community leaders, and finally one of them told me they thought the time was right."

The first Imizamo Yethu library opened on February 6, 1996. The library was offered the use of one of the old forestry department buildings. Volunteers cleaned, stocked, and painted the building a brilliant orange color, making it visible for miles around. Dymond organized a procession of hundreds of school children to mark the opening of the new library. …

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