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Sihle Khumalo

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

It’s a fact: darkies just don’t read

This old column of mine attracted some interest from the Guardian recently, so I thought I’d resurrect it. It’s called “Darkies just don’t read”:

Black people and reading just do not mix. First things first: before anybody tells me about the string of degrees they have, I am talking about general (i.e. non-academic) reading.

In this country, with almost 50 million people, a book has to sell only 5000 copies to be regarded as a bestseller. That can only mean one thing: South Africans – of whom almost 90% are black and about 95% of those African – just do not read.

I have often wondered why blacks don’t read. I have narrowed it down to two reasons: Firstly the inferior Bantu education – which most of us were exposed to – never, ever encouraged us to read. The last thing the National Party wanted was vast numbers of knowledgeable blacks.

Go to any black household and you will find lots of music tapes, LPs, CDs and DVDs and a handful, if any, of general books. That, by the way, includes blacks in the suburbs. The lack of reading is a black thing, irrespective of where you live. It is way more fashionable to have loads of music than to be truly knowledgeable. But then again, will it suit the ANC government all of a sudden to have a vast number of broad-minded, knowledgeable black South Africans? I have my doubts, because that would mean singing talent alone would not make you a senior government official.

The second reason why black people do not read is, admittedly, because reading is not a basic need. So as long as they have to worry about basic things like where they are going to sleep and where their next meal will come from, the last thing on their minds will be: “what book am I going to read today?”

Another reason (read: excuse) for the lack of reading is that most books in this country do not appeal to a black audience; and thus the vast majority of people cannot relate to the products on offer. Bullshit! The fact is that there are countless books written by black (and white) South Africans, which an average black person can relate to, but those books never seem to crack it in the market. Why? Because the vast majority of black South Africans do not even know that such books even exist.

Another famous excuse is that there are no bookshops in the townships. Well, the only bookshop in Soweto – a location with more than a million black people – closed down at the end of August because: “Eish, business was very slow.”


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