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Creating a culture of reading in South Africa.
Finn Daniel Mackinnon for Global Citizen
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Almost 80% of Grade 4 Students Struggle to Read in South Africa. This Campaign Wants to Change That.

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Almost 80% of grade 4 students in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any of the country’s 11 official languages — but a nationwide campaign is trying to change that by promoting libraries. 

Not being able to read with ease or understand reading material results in children suffering academically, and the ripple effect can be seen in the high drop-out rates, as well as the high unemployment rates among young people in South Africa.

That’s why Nal’ibali, South Africa’s reading-for-enjoyment campaign, has partnered with municipal libraries to promote a culture of reading.

While libraries are open to everyone, Barbara Meyer, Nal’ibali’s public relations coordinator, says they remain largely underutilised, so children are unaccustomed to borrowing books to take home to read for enjoyment.

"Children can spend the whole afternoon at the library doing school projects, but they usually leave without taking a book home to read because they don’t know that they can," Meyer said in a press release.

The campaign, which started on Oct. 9 and will run until Nov. 29, will focus on encouraging South Africans to take advantage of the country's free library memberships.

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Nal’ibali literacy mentors will be helping children register for cards through a series of events at local libraries and registration drives at malls and community centres throughout the country. 

They will also be visiting selected schools to distribute library membership application forms to motivate children (and their caregivers) to join.

While the campaign is targeted at making reading fun for children, Meyer says that adults have the responsibility to model healthy behaviour to the children in their lives.

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"Reading for enjoyment competes with watching TV and playing games on cellphones, which makes the task of changing attitudes to reading all the more important," Meyer said.

An estimated 60% of South Africans live in households that don’t have a single book.

In a country where nearly half the population lives under the poverty line of R992 (rougly US$67) per person per month, Meyer says the lack of access to books is largely because they are too expensive for the average family to buy.

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Meyer also highlighted that another obstacle is that many parents think a library membership card must be paid for — but she confirms that municipal libraries provide the first library membership card for free and a replacement fee is charged only if the card is lost.

Nal’ibali hopes to increase library membership by 120,000 new members over the next two months.

In addition, they will be giving new bicycles to 50 lucky children who have registered for a library membership card, in a quest to make distance less of a barrier to reading.