Democracy is dialogue

There’s a man seated on an empty ledge in the inner city of Johannesburg, he’s a black man, next to him, his friend or colleague, a white man, they having heated debate.

In front of them, a woman. She stands resolute, one arm raised, holding firmly, a bottle with a burning wick. She’s carrying a baby on her back too, bound by a blanket. She’s a mother, a fighter, a leader.

Her right arm raised higher, holding a statement demanding for all of the city to read “Democracy is Dialogue”. She is bold and bronze monument, a symbol of the South African liberation.

Behind her, the words “Libri Thesaurus Anmi” (Books are the treasure house of the mind) are etched into the stone of a building, the Johannesburg City Library, another symbol of South Africa’s democracy.

GRAND DESIGN: The Reference Library is a vast space to explore, holding a range of texts from historical records, to practical handbooks, scientific treaties, literature and contemporary knowledge. The librarian’s desk is long, but the library itself is grand in design. White spherical globes hang from the carved and coffered Italianesque ceilings, while young and old adults indulge in knowledge below.

In the Beyers Naude Square of the Johannesburg inner city, you can see people from all walks of life. A skater passes a homeless man, while a girl and her friend in their school uniforms walk up the 21 steps towards the grand and intricately designed doors of the Johannesburg City Library.

As you enter, a young man behind a counter is the first to welcome you. The lighting is dull and insufficient. The pace is slow, a contrast to the buzzing outside. People inside are either filling their water bottles from the water cooler, looking down from the balcony on the first floor or walking slowly into a section of the library to start studying. It’s exam period, the library has more activity than usual.

The man behind the counter waits to receive your belongings and issues you a worn out card with a number marked on it. While you wait there’s a squeaking escalator on the left, that’s hard not to miss but also easy to get used to.

The Johannesburg City Library (JCL) was opened to all races in 1974, in an attempt to overcome the spatial divide between races. Over time it became a symbol of knowledge, transformation and democracy.

Taking us on a backward journey Des Patel, who worked as a librarian in the 80s, said the library was commonly used recreationally for children and adults. “People would go there to read for pleasure,” she said. Despite being open to all races, Patel said sections of the library were still very racially segregated, the facilities were used differently.

“One thing I do highlight is that people of colour would come into the library and they had this hunger for knowledge and facts – they would take out non-fictional books mostly, while white people indulged in fictional books.”

Through knowledge it was possible for young activists and leaders to inform themselves on the liberation and find ways to transform their society.

Two decades later and living in Johannesburg, in a so-called “new South Africa”, sees many people grappling with the idea of being truly African. The library, located on Albertina Sisulu Road and Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Street, is quite ‘underutilised’, said Patel.

Edgar Serala, 32, a tall and lean man sits in his chair in the Michaelis Art collection on the second floor.

Surrounded with books and art pieces while natural light streams in from the windows in the ceiling, Serala looks around with familiarity before he starts talking.

Serala comes from Soweto and has been a library user ever since he was a young boy.  He is a school drop-out but has not allowed that to detour his path. He is an aspiring writer, former miner and now an entrepreneur, who frequents the library to improve his business in Soweto. He is a self-taught man and uses the library as his ‘virtual’ office.

“It’s easier and cheaper, I meet clients here, use the wi-fi to develop my own website and do the digital marketing for my product,” said Serala.

He believes that despite the library being a hoarder of knowledge, it needs more.

“This is more of an academic library, it houses more 20th century material,” he said.

He says to some extent the library does not identify with the majority of South Africans.

“It still has that colonial structure and it houses that material – we need to ask – do we actually know enough to transform our society, maybe the library needs to transform, before we can transform our society,” he said.

“We don’t only reject it, but it rejects us,” he added.

The architecture and buildings around town are still very European and it does not fit in with the identities or understandings of the African majority. “We’re not necessarily doing away with Eurocentric thinking and material, it’s about giving us the opportunity to learn more about Africa,” he said.

Serala enthusiastically made reference to Black-Consciousness leader Stephen Bantu Biko’s  I write what I like.

“I read it when I was young, but it ‘fucked me up’, it made me analyse everything, I didn’t realise what was going on around me and it opened my eyes to the potential of transformation – imagine if I had access to more books like that?” he said.

For Serala, in order to transform, there needs to be a transformation of knowledge which allows people to see and discover things for themselves about the world.

In the same space, also comforted by the knowledge on Art and Art history in the Michaelis Art Collection on the second floor, is librarian William Stewart. Sitting by a round desk, Stewart said the JCL is a preserve of the wealthiest collections of knowledge about South Africa’s history.

“During apartheid, there was a ban on certain books, a kind of censorship and librarians had to burn these books,” but Stewart, who has been at the JCL since 1991, said the librarians at the JCL could not bring themselves to burn books or records they kept of the city, they instead hid them, and when the ban on these books lifted, the books resurfaced.

He said the Johannesburg Library, as it operates today, contains books that represent all points of views. This, he said, is so that people who use the library can make their own informed decisions about the country’s politics and social issues.

“The library’s role is to collect and preserve information of local interest,” said Stewart, while adjusting his thick black-framed spectacles.

The Michaelis Art Collection houses the ideas of contemporary artists from Africa and Europe, either on the shelves or as pieces framed against the walls. A colourful but crammed piece by South African artist Helen Sebidi ushers you into the library. Sebidi is a common name among South Africa’s township artists. Her art confronts themes relating to the ‘dislocation and disruption of society’. She drew her inspiration from the happenings and experiences of daily township life during apartheid.

The website encapsulated: “The life history of the struggle of this consummate artist stands as a metaphor for our collective struggle to define ourselves as a nation – therefore reminding us where we come from and prompts us towards our future.”

Stewart, who commended the library’s wealth of knowledge in art, history, archives, music while also embracing the use of the internet to supplement knowledge, said libraries collect knowledge for the benefit of society, to broaden people’s perspectives and add to their knowledge of the entire world, not just their own continent.

Through whichever means, the library embodies engagement with knowledge. Every fortnight, the Indaba room on the first floor is brought to life through conversation. People with a disparity in age and background gather around rectangular tables to discuss books they’ve read and provide personal perspectives on current affairs.

Rethabile Dladla, who frequents the dynamic space, said these discussions inform her on broader issues about the world without having to read the news.

“It’s about learning through conversation – people talk about what they learn and we share,” she said.

The 23-year-old journalism student from Boston College in Johannesburg said it is a free space and people of all different ages talk about whatever they want.

“Sometimes we discuss countries, books, movies and TV series, we talk about everything.”

The value and significance of the library holding discussions during the information age is relatively rare. Many overlook that knowledge can also be obtained through conversation and by challenging views, as they do in the Indaba room on the first floor.

Dladla added: “Discussions of this nature will help take us forward and that it’s good because it encourages recreational reading.”

Recreational reading is seen as rather rare according to former JCL librarian Shamim Hargovan. She recalls the vibrancy of people who used libraries in 1984 when she worked there. “It was vibrant and busy and now there is no reading youth,” she said.

Drawing from her personal observations, Hargovan said: “People are not critical, they don’t interact or debate and if it doesn’t involve them, it’s fine – what future do we then foresee?”

Libraries in these circumstances have the responsibility to facilitate and make provision for learning and knowledge that is accessible to all. Public libraries are somewhat representative of an informal schooling system, educating on issues that go beyond their own benefit and interests.

Trailing across the open space from the Michaelis Art Collection, towards the left wing staircase, many youth can be seen gathered around tables with white lights reflecting off their faces. Unlike the natural light streaming in through the windows on the ceilings, this light instead comes from the light of smartphone or laptops.

The marble stairs on the left leading up to the Africana section are well lit compared to the rest of the library. Almost like a metaphor for enlightenment of the African child, seeking to quench a thirst for knowledge in a building that looks like it’s been pulled straight out off the page of an Italian architecture book.

The glass doors entering the Africana collection have many instructions on them. “No bags larger than this window allowed.”

More glass casings, to protect the history or to protect the people against the history. There are rows of cabinets, glass and wooden cabinets, holding the books that carry South Africa’s history. Pre-democracy and even the times before that.

History in books is peculiar. They capture the details and ideas of intellectuals, until someone cares to pick it up, page through it and absorb the ideas for intellectual enlightenment.

A definite product of African knowledge is Gugulethu Bodibe, a writer and researcher. He can be found sitting on the cushioned chair, in front of a wooden table, stacked with various political books, reading one of his own. A loose crocheted beanie and a Zulu beaded chain to dress his neck. He uses the fan to cool him in the stuffy preserve of the Harold Strange Africana collection on the third floor.

Bodibe has invested his time in the study of African history, culture, spirituality and politics and published an article called “Culture as a weapon” in an American magazine in 2009. Since then, he has turned his research towards the understanding of Ancient African history and language.

“I wanted to study my father tongue at UNISA but the institution didn’t offer it, I challenged them for it but they rejected me, which brought me to question what does it mean to be an African in the new South Africa – I started questioning everything.”

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Bodibe developed a keen interest in Ancient African languages and how they can be used to advance African knowledge systems.  He drew his inspiration on this subject from Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s book,  Decolonising the Mind, which discusses how African authors have to write in African languages.

“I armed myself with that knowledge and applied myself practically,” he said.

Bodibe started a company called Setheo Seshat Djehuty (the Institute for the Manifestation of Wisdom) that aims to promote the study of African languages and literature in South Africa.

Bodibe, who is very passionate about his research on ancient African languages, said: “Africa needs to look within itself and without- we need to learn from other countries and apply it to ourselves.”

As a researcher on African perspectives and knowledge systems, Bodibe spends at least one day a week in the Harold Strange Africana Collection. He said he wants to use languages and scientific knowledge to motivate and educate others towards transforming society. He said:  “As someone interested in linguistics, concentrating particularly on xenophobia – whether it’s something published, or through a public campaign, or using art as a medium – in whatever shape or fashion, I hope to present to the public- conclusively – that xenophobia is senseless.”

Bodibe developed a keen interest in Ancient African languages and how they can be used to advance African knowledge systems.  He drew his inspiration on this subject from Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s book,  Decolonising the Mind, which discusses how African authors have to write in African languages.

“I armed myself with that knowledge and applied myself practically,” he said.

Bodibe started a company called Setheo Seshat Djehuty (the Institute for the Manifestation of Wisdom) that aims to promote the study of African languages and literature in South Africa.

Bodibe, who is very passionate about his research on ancient African languages, said: “Africa needs to look within itself and without- we need to learn from other countries and apply it to ourselves.”

As a researcher on African perspectives and knowledge systems, Bodibe spends at least one day a week in the Harold Strange Africana Collection. He said he wants to use languages and scientific knowledge to motivate and educate others towards transforming society. He said:  “As someone interested in linguistics, concentrating particularly on xenophobia – whether it’s something published, or through a public campaign, or using art as a medium – in whatever shape or fashion, I hope to present to the public- conclusively – that xenophobia is senseless.”

Like the natural light streaming through the glass ceilings and barred windows in the library, individuals take the knowledge and spill it out into the streets. 21 steps, a new outlook and a standing figure to remind you that all you do in the library is a contribution and an effort to further democratize society

FEATURED IMAGE: Books from Joahannesburg Library. Photo; Aarti Bhana


The sole survivor speaks english

Stuck in peak hour afternoon traffic in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD), the blaring sound of taxis hooting and the streets crowded by pedestrians are heightening my claustrophobia. I slightly open the window of the Uber I am sharing with four friends and the warm air laced with the odour of garbage and urine smack my face. In desperate need for solace, I look to the dilapidated buildings towering over us. The chipping blue paint on a white building is desperately hanging on to the title “ENGLISH SCHOOL” and I begin to question how a place that is densely populated by black Africans in a nation that prides itself of 11 national languages still finds the need for an English school?

In the bustling multicultural city of Johannesburg, learning to read and speak English is more than a way of assimilating knowledge. It is a key to survival.

Hailing from Kenya, a nation that was once severely colonised by the British, English was etched onto my tongue from birth. The command of the English language is a symbol of success in my country and from pre-school I had aced English spelling tests, I could read English books and not a day went by without me communicating to friends and family in English.

So shortly after we migrated, my parents were naturally confused when I returned home with a note from my South African primary school that informed them that their six-year-old daughter needed speech therapy to perfect her English.

According to my speech therapist, Phillipa Ellis, it was my Kenyan pronunciation of English words that South Africans had difficulty understanding. Even though I was an English genius in comparison to my peers, Kenya needed to be washed away from my accent in order for my English to be palatable to South Africans.

Both the reception and expression of the English language is key when communicating, said Ellis. So that is why even though one may have knowledge of the language, it is the assimilation of  how it is spoken in a country that is important in order to open the door that the English language makes accessible.

People in South Africa are realising the benefits of the English language. According to the nation’s census of 2011, there are 51.7 million people living in South Africa. Of the 11 official South African languages only 9.6% or 5-million people speak English as their home language in South Africa. English, alongside Setswana, is ranked fifth as a South African home language.

However, the English language is fast being adopted by many as their first language, specifically in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

People in South Africa are embracing the English language.  The 2011 census shows that there was an increase of 1-million people in the country speaking English as their first language.

It is no surprise that in the new education curriculum, English is one of the two compulsory languages to learn. Furthermore, the language of teaching and learning in the majority of schools and tertiary education institutions in South Africa is English.

So it is safe to say that in a melting pot of cultures, the one language that is willingly assimilated in South Africa is English.

On the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers, another tall building in Johannesburg’s CBD on Commissioner street, are three tiny rooms that make up Excell Solutions, a place which offers “all”, may it be “adults, youth, business personnel, individuals, small groups and company employees” to take English courses. Excell Solutions offers “basic intermediate and business level English” which entails reading, writing and speaking.

Pinkie Biyela, a Zulu woman, grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and much of her life has unfolded in the province, from her basic education to her first job, from her wedding to the birth of her children.

She was content with her life in KwaZulu-Natal until October 2, 2015, when she decided she was going to pursue her dream of completing university and starting a business in the trade industry.

She resigned from her administrative job in a financial firm and she was comfortably settled into her flat in Johannesburg’s CBD by the beginning of 2016.

Pinkie got a couple of administrative jobs in the CBD to build her fund for English lessons. On August 16, 2016, she began her English lessons on the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers on Commissioner Street. Pinkie blames her “rural school” in KwaZulu-Natal for an inability to speak English.

“In my school we did not speak English, only isiZulu, it has been hard learning English, it is so difficult to speak and write but it is important because I want to communicate with many different people,” said Pinkie.

She began classes at Excell Solutions with the knowledge of only basic English words and now she is on an intermediary level, meaning that Pinkie can “communicate easily on everyday matters” but she has “limited range of expression”.

Ana Jorquati, a 23-year-old medical student from Angola, also found herself on the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers on Commissioner Street.

Ana is in Johannesburg for the duration of her three month holiday with the sole purpose of learning English so that she could better her opportunities in Angola. “In South Africa, I have a chance to speak English so I learn better…I read in English, I listen in English, I watch TV in English, I listen to radio in English and my English has become stronger…so now it will be easy for me to find work,” explained Ana.

“I don’t like speaking English, I do not like this language but it is necessary and I am trying to learn it and it is fine but I do not like it so much,” said Ana.

Her current level of English is elementary, meaning that she has a “basic knowledge of vocabulary and grammar”, she can “understand simple message and instructions”.

However, the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg, which is the home to Excell Solutions, a base for English lessons does not exactly fulfil its promises to the hundreds that go seeking to learn English as a foreign language.

Thandeka, an employee of Excell Solutions wears many hats. She is the secretary, she does all the administration, she books rooms for the English workshops and works terribly hard to make sure that the teachers show up to work and people learn English.

In the beginning of October, Thandeka mentioned how the rent for the spaces in the Klamson Towers was not paid for and she was abruptly greeted by locked rooms and confused students one morning.

Thandeka said that for the past two weeks, the English lessons had to be put on hold because one teacher is on maternity leave and the other teacher and apparent owner of the school is on holiday.

People like Pinkie and Ana are left in limbo because the successful continuation of their lives depends on their assimilation of the English language.

Thandeka has been working hard to ensure that learners are able to continue with their courses by putting them in touch with tutors who would be able to facilitate lessons.

Both Pinkie and Ana were put in touch with Lesh Pillay, a tutor in an English school in Bramley. She is a tutor to foreign nationals and South Africans who want to learn English as a foreign language.

“I see so many students who are without the interest of learning English but they know that they need it,” said Lesh. Her interest in teaching English grew from her love of learning different languages.

“I have always been an avid reader and I have always loved the language and I also want other people to love it too,” said Lesh.

According to feedback from her students, Lesh said it appears that learning English in South Africa seems to be more affordable than it is in other nations. To get an estimate of how much English lessons are, Thandeka explained that they are as follows: R800 for one lesson, R2 750 for six lessons, R2 800 for four consecutive lesson in a week, R3 240 for 16 lessons four days a week and R3 000 for 20 lessons.

Just like Excell Solutions, the school that Lesh tutors at offers certificates in accordance with the level that the student is trying to achieve. The levels for English are Beginner, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate and Advanced.

Each level that is completed deserves a certificate. If the student wants to learn English for academic purposes two international tests are optional, IELTS and PTE.

SECOND LANGUAGE: Always equpped with an English dictionary: A foreign national student’s desk. Photo: Hazel Kimani

I attended an Intermediate class for two hours. The class was taught by Lesh and attended by three foreign nationals. The lesson was in preparation for a mid-course test.

The class was an intense grammar session. My presence left the students on edge as I sat in the round table beside theirs. Lesh encouraged the student to comfortably answer questions and speak freely as I was just observing the class. The students had notebooks and textbooks they had to purchase for themselves.

They all wrote with pencils because of the permanent errors a pen would leave behind.

They started off by going through homework, which was in the form of a crossword puzzle. One of the crossword questions were, “bigger than a car and smaller than a lorry?”

The answer was “van” and nobody answered correctly. After Lesh took to the large whiteboard where she went through English articles, such as “a”, “an”, “the” and the use of no articles. The students would ask for the repetition of rules and the spelling and pronunciation of words.

Listen: During a conversational exercise, the students follow and fill in blank spaces. Photo: Hazel Kimani
CATCH UP: Anusha recapping the previous days work before class starts. Photo: Hazel Kimani

If these walls could talk: A white board with the lesson of the day and a poster with vowels. Photo: Hazel Kimani
The students were listening to the pronunciation of English words. Photo: Hazel Kimani

Lesh taught slowly and made sure everyone was comfortable and fully understood what she had just taught. Lesh then asked everyone about the previous day as well as current affairs. Even though they all struggled to articulate what they wanted to say, they managed to respond and engage with Lesh and each other. They even laughed when the student from Ethiopia made a joke.

The classroom’s walls had a “no cell phones, no food and no drink” poster beside the door. Another wall had a map of the world and a clock hung above the whiteboard. There was a fan in one corner of the room as there were no windows for any relief from the summer heat of Johannesburg.

Lesh then taught modal verbs, such as “can” and could”. During the lesson, Lesh would introduce words that the students were unfamiliar with and they would ask for the spelling and meaning. The hesitance of the students was always met with patience from the tutor. The entire learning experience was intimate and conversational.

According to Natalie van de Water, a trainer for teachers from the Wits Language School, tutors that teach English to foreign nationals are mostly taught a communicative approach. The learners are required to be active and the lessons are supposed to be filled with questions and discussions.

“The main purposes for teaching English to foreign nationals is for jobs and generally functioning in society. English is the global language of business and it is necessary especially if someone wants to be integrated into a society”, said Natalie.

It is evident by just observing the current stage of their lives that people like Pinkie and Ana need to assimilate with the English language in order to be able to not only integrate themselves into a city like Johannesburg but the entire business world relies on the English language.

Pinkie’s future endeavours are accessible through her assimilation with English and the success that Ana will be able to attain through her degree will be increased by her assimilation with English.

English then is a survival skill that multitudes on the continent, if not the world, need to attain. It is fascinating that people from different parts of the continent are coming to South Africa, specifically the city’s central business district, to start a relationship with the English language.

After my great difficulty finding an English school, I wonder why many are not jumping at the opportunity of opening such facilities and allowing tutors to share the skill that is fast becoming necessary for survival in global cities.

“I have never met someone who wants to learn English for fun, I have never come across that,” said Lesh. She believes that when someone seeks to learn English it is because it is vital for their livelihood, it is a survival skill.

“English is the international business language so if people do not know English, how do they interact with people from different countries and within South Africa?

“English is not our only language, it is one of many but it is the main form of language, it is the international medium. So to be able to communicate clearly with other people, English is very important.”

So in this culturally diverse hub at the bottom of Africa, the sound of one language rises above all others amidst the bustling streets. English, the language of assimilation, the language of adoption, the language of survival, the language of Johannesburg.

FEATURED IMAGE: Dictionaries at a library. Photo: Hazel Kimani