“Be a lifelong student, read as many books as possible,” said Nelson Mandela.
The late statesman was famously an avid reader and even once said that he longed to be back in prison because post-release life gave him such little opportunity for reading and reflection!
Madiba is an apt example of the life-changing reach of access to literacy. It was a book – the complete works of William Shakespeare – that was smuggled into the Robben Island prison that saw many of the freedom fighters through their darkest days.
Access to literary materials is vitally important, particularly at this critical juncture in South Africa.
But the benefits of literacy go far beyond simply being an escape mechanism.
Studies have shown that reading a novel can improve one’s brain function in a variety of ways. The US’s Emory University found that reading fiction not only boosts imagination, but also improves one’s ability to empathise.
Meanwhile, research by the British Cohort Study found that children who frequently read books scored better in both language and maths tests.
A local study came to a similar finding. The Mandela Library Project identifies schools in need of literacy resources and then donates fully stocked libraries to them.
The project falls under the Long Walk To Freedom organisation, which revealed that the literacy annual national assessment results of pupils at more than 100 schools had significantly improved after libraries had opened there.
For example, at Refitlhilepele Primary School in Gauteng, literacy assessment results for Grade 6 learners in 2012 in English was 19.9%.
A year after the library had opened there, that level hit 49.5%.
This isn’t anecdotal as all the schools identified showed significantly improved literacy assessment scores.
This year, my organisation is working with the library project for this exact reason.
But this isn’t just about test scores. Mandela Library Project chief executive Robert Coutts has witnessed first-hand the change in children’s confidence levels.
He says: “One of the most profound changes I have seen with children who learn to read is a lift in engagement and communication levels. Children who can’t read have a double negative in that they seldom have the confidence to communicate clearly in any situation with their peers. This leads to long-term lost opportunities.
“It never ceases to amaze me that children who learn to read become more vocal and noticed in the school system and then in life, and have the ability to change their own outcomes for the better.”
Giving future generations the ability to read and providing them with the necessary material – something that many of us take for granted – would substantially shift the fortunes of this nation.
Numerous studies have shown that the higher the literacy rate of a country, the higher their GDP rate. That makes sense. Literate people are much more capable of learning the skills necessary to perform critical work.
If we want South Africa to prosper, we need to ensure that even the poorest among us can read for meaning.
This is not a goal that’s beyond reach.
The Mandela Library Project and Relate joined forces, in light of Mandela’s centenary year, to mobilise this goal by offering a simple, tangible way for everyone to lend a helping hand. Together, they’ve given you, the reader, a chance to help change this country’s direction.
For more information and to buy Mandela Centenary bracelets, please visit www.relate.org.za
• Lauren Gillis is the founder of the Relate Trust