Address by the Minister of Arts and Culture, EN Mthethwa, at the World Library and Information Congress pre-conference meeting of African Ministers of Culture on the role of libraries in the post-2015 Development Agenda, International Convention Centre, Cape Town.

Arts and Culture Minister Mr Mathi Mthethwa-fOn behalf of the South African Government and IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all international and local delegates gathered here today in this vibrant city of Cape Town.

Welcome to the southern tip of the continent and the home of “The Cradle of Humankind”, the birthplace of the earliest hominids.  I trust that you will also visit our heritage sites and experience our rich arts and cultural life.  We have gathered here as African ministers as a prelude to the IFLA conference. The theme of this 81st IFLA Annual World Library and Information Congress is: Dynamic Libraries: Access, Development and Transformation.  This theme guides our meeting today. Our governments are charged with the responsibility to discover, develop and encourage national and continental talent for the enhancement of our cultural life; all cultural treasures of mankind must be opened to all by exchange of books, ideas and contacts with the rest of the continent and the world. The exchange must be able to teach and educate the youth of our continent to love their people and their culture, to honour humanity, liberty and peace.

We gather here today as African ministers, inspired by our shared histories, cognisant of our many challenges, but confident that together we can influence the shape of things to come.This continent that gave birth to us, is also home to the ancient universities of Mali and the manuscripts from Timbuktu.

History tells us of the ancient library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the world, and of other artefacts and texts that trace the history of the people of this continent from the earliest of times.  In those days papyrus and parchment, scrolls and tablets, captured the histories, the literature, the science and mathematics, the economics, the languages and the cultural and spiritual imagination of the people of vast regions of the African world.

Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, driving this point home in April 1906, said the following, “The African is not a proletarian in the world of science and art. He has precious creations of his own, of ivory, of copper and of gold, fine, plated willow-ware and weapons of superior workmanship”.

We know that we are African people with a history of which we can be proud because of all this knowledge that remains, all that has been preserved through centuries and passed on as a legacy for us all.  Today we use paper and even beyond paper, we have entered the realm of e-books and a digitised world.  Together we need to build a continental information society of informed people, where libraries flourish, where consciousness is heightened and where the culture of reading is a way of life.  We are meeting here because libraries do make a difference in our daily lives as nations, states, people of the African continent and the world.  Yet like the civilisations of ancient Africa, we too are faced with the challenges of preservation of our knowledge and the dissemination of this knowledge.

We live in a rapidly globalising reality where the voices that dominate the discourse of global power are not always our own and where the dominant narratives are not written or devised by us.

  • We need to tell our own stories. We need to ensure that our voices, our narratives, our ideas have equal power, and assert ownership of this knowledge.
  • We need to encourage libraries as spaces where information conveyed through new technologies can help to revolutionise and transform our people’s lives.
  • We need to equip our libraries with the common foundational texts, that elaborate on our shared African identity and how Africa can take its rightful place in the wider world, so that when our youth meet each other, they can engage with this common and rich body of knowledge even as they come from different places and a multiplicity of cultural expressions.
  • Cultural and scientific exchange between our people and states are paramount for our intellectual development.
  • Let our African libraries initiate ‘writers in residence’ programmes whereby our great African authors can travel to different parts of the continent to share their writing and findings, engage with new audiences and mentor others.
  • Thus it is important that we support an African library network that can provide Africa with a united voice in world affairs and instil confidence and pride in an African identity.
  • Let African libraries supported by ourselves take on the responsibilities of being interactive centres that engage with communities so that together we generate, collect and document the oral histories of our people.
  • Institutional partnerships between libraries in Africa can also go a long way in building knowledge hubs and centres of excellence.
  •   Let us recognise that librarians are the trusted guardians of the rich legacy of our African world and of the world at large. They are tasked with sharing this wealth of knowledge in order to bring people closer together, in order to inculcate greater mutual understanding and cultural coalescence. They provide us with the knowledge of how the world works and trace our journey to a new and better world.

Our task therefore is also manifold as we seek to increase the access of our people to all the knowledge that can empower them, doing so in many languages, and protecting their knowledge and indigenous knowledge systems. The great Nelson Mandela once said:  “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Our task at hand today is to bring to the fore the voice of culture and strengthen the hand of libraries in taking forward Africa’s developmental agenda.  Various gatherings have sought to address the status of libraries and their role in providing access to information on the African continent. These include the African Public Library Summits of 2011 and 2013. We are also guided by the African Union Charter for Africa’s Cultural Renaissance and the African Union Agenda 2063.

As African countries we need to create an enabling environment to enable African libraries and librarians to fulfil their role as agents of change and societal development as envisaged in the United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda.

This Agenda recognises that poverty eradication is an essential requirement for sustainable development and emphasises access to equitable education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

We recognise that IFLA’s 2014 Lyon Declaration indicates that libraries can and should play an indispensable and transformational role in sustainable development.  We recognise the rights of people to knowledge, the rights of the girl child to access education, the right to equality in access to knowledge so that it is not the domain of the rich but also empowers the poor.  We note the important role that libraries can play in providing universal access to information and knowledge. This further strengthens democracy.  We recognise the critical role of access to information and information technology in helping to eradicate poverty, promoting human rights, and enabling sustainable development by bridging the gap between national policies and implementation at local level.

We will do all we can therefore to help to resource the African library agenda. Another guiding document for us as the African continent is the African Union Agenda 2063, ‘the Africa we want’.

Our aspirations contained in this framework also envision a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable people-driven development, wherein Africa’s people are our most precious resource.

The Agenda calls for the eradication of poverty through investing in the productive capacities of our people through a skills revolution, especially through the education of Africa’s children and youth.

In its Call to Action, the Agenda seeks to speed up action in building and expanding “an African knowledge society through transformation and investments in universities, science, technology, research and innovation.”

The Charter for Africa’s Cultural Renaissance connects African values with power and democracy. It affirms multiculturalism and recognises that there are many ways in which people see themselves and are able to make informed choices about their lives.

Timeous access to appropriate information in the right language can promote social cohesion across national borders since languages are shared, cultivate an African worldview and a richer understanding of cultural diversity.

The landscape of the Library and Information Services in South Africa (LIASA) is made up of:

  • 1 500 public libraries affiliated to the nine provincial library services;
  • 210 Higher Education libraries;
  • An estimated 5 310 school libraries;
  • 112 special and government departmental libraries; and
  •   2 National Libraries.

A conditional grant ensures that new community libraries continue to be built every year and others upgraded and new material purchased.

We have done much to transform the library and information services of our country, and we are also intensifiying our work so that there are libraries accessible to all communities at local level and through encouraging a culture of reading and writing.

Today we have the opportunity to share best practices and discuss what we can do together to strengthen our libraries and their role in sustaining development.

In conclusion, I would like to quote from the Freedom Charter that was adopted by the Congress of the People 60 years ago in 1955, when South Africans from all walks of life gathered in Kliptown during the darkest days of apartheid. This helped to unite our people behind a common vision and guided us in our struggle towards a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous country.

Among its ten clauses, the Freedom Charter declared; and I quote that “the Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Open to All!” It is this Charter that formed the basis of our National Constitution of 1996.

Let us in this congress today embark upon fruitful discussions so that at the end of the day we leave here with a shared vision and plans for our libraries sector so that indeed we ensure that Africa’s doors of learning and culture shall be open to all.

I thank you.

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