It was in the second half of the sixteenth century that Francis Bacon declared that “knowledge is power”. Bacon’s words reflect the age-old human quest for information through the means of engaging with books and other forms.
On last Friday 23 April, the world marked World Book Day, a recognition of the human endeavour for knowledge through engaging with literature. The National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA) recognises the World Book Day and takes this opportunity to encourage the people of Africa and the world to hold this day dear to their hearts and that it continues to inspire those who are in love with writing to continue in providing knowledge to the world. In the same vein the organisation is calling upon everyone to continue supporting authors by buying and reading books.
NWASA also expresses its distress at the fact that the World Book Day took place in a troubling week in the most southern tip of Africa, where a runaway fire on Table Mountain engulfed the neighbouring University of Cape Town. In the process, various fountains of knowledge were destroyed, including the institution’s priceless literary and historical archives.
We send our thoughts to the University and all the staff who worked tirelessly over the years to preserve knowledge in these buildings. As Bacon also said, “libraries are as the shrine where all the relics of the ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserved and reposed”, we hope that with time and in collaboration with all stakeholders in the literary fraternity, we can contribute to restore the institution’s repository for future generations.
NWASA is gravely concerned about a myriad of challenges facing interventions and initiatives aimed at promoting the endeavours of preservation of our collective institutional memory.
We hereby appeal to the government and all the stakeholders particularly in the publishing fraternity, and the cultural industries in general, to immediately address this dire situation.
Although we do acknowledge the economic lockdowns intended to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have cast many companies into financial distress, the private sector and other institutions must inject funding in the critical areas such as the development of intellectual resource and knowledge management (including capacity building), preservation and conservation of our heritage through adopting 4IR resources such as the digitisation of books and archives.
We cannot fold our hands and allow a situation where treasure troves of knowledge and information are either neglected or, as in recent instances, are incinerated to ashes as a result of sporadic bonfires.
We need to expedite the process of putting in place measures that will ensure that accidental destruction and quality deterioration of such valuable intellectual assets are prevented, otherwise posterity will not reap the benefit of the massive strides we have made in this realm.
Although the latest incident of destruction of the University of Cape Town’s library, in which over 5 000 heritage texts were gutted, is attributed to natural causes, this takes us back to memories of Africa’s cultural artefacts remain captured in foreign continents and some of those left on our shores such Mali’s “Timbuktu manuscripts”, were a few years ago deliberately destroyed by fundamentalist religious fanatics and political insurgents. These centuries old manuscripts showcase the civilization of West Africa during the Middle Ages.
Africa’s history will forever pay homage to former President Thabo Mbeki for having spearheaded initiatives to restore and preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts to their pristine condition. Timbuktu is reputed as a fountain of knowledge, a place of pioneering innovation and indeed a venerable centre of learning. It was a prosperous city with magnificent architecture and a haven of African and Moslem scholars who harnessed a tradition of extraordinary scholarship in such fields as mathematics, the arts and sciences.
We call on government and the private sector to provide resources to such progressive institutions as the South African History Archives (SAHA), the Mayibuye Centre and numerous others to be given a lifeline – allowing them to perish will be worse than a travesty of justice. These institutions should be sufficiently resourced to ensure interconnectivity between local resource centres and those abroad which house Africa’s cultural knowledge such as Reggio Emilia’s archives on the southern African liberation movements.
We must now pause and ask: What may happen if the fate had befallen these institutions?
The Mayibuye Centre is based in the University of the Western Cape and warehouses the struggle history of the South African liberation movement. We therefore call on our other liberation movements to ensure they preserve documents they generated during the struggle against apartheid tyranny.
NWASA also appeals to all South Africans and other people around the globe to carry the spirit of the World Book Day beyond the celebrations of this day. Reading should be integrated into our lives so that our minds are well nourished and as part of an effective tool of helping us to adapt to the continuous, sudden and unpredictable that a permanent feature of our contemporary world. As a matter of urgency, we must stop at nothing to nurture the culture of reading, and if needs be, some among us must escalate this to the level of writing.
Issued by the Secretary-General.