Burning books: The African way

by The Editor

imagesFEATURE: Much has rightly been made of the destruction of key texts and manuscripts held at Timbuktu; much less of the spate of library burning in South Africa over the last four years. Why is that? I have compiled an archive of libraries burnt in South Africa during this period and, in the piece below, argue that while we are quick to express passion about ‘African’ cultural ideals, we have little to say about book burning in our country and what it says about our actual cultural attitude to knowledge and education.

Burning books: The African way

By: Gareth van Onselen

14 February 2013

“We don’t need education, we don’t need anything. We just need to show them how angry we are. If we do not like what we hear from them, then they will really see what we can do. Then we will really burn.” [Anonymous 19-year old protestor, who helped destroy the Sakhile community library in 2009]

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” [Ray Bradbury]

The attempt to re-establish Timbuktu as the heartland of African culture was one of President Mbeki’s great passions. The prospect embodied every insecure impulse that defined his approach to politics – a powerful metaphor for his own low-self esteem projected, as ever, onto the world. That is not to detract from the importance of the undertaking. Any project, the purpose of which is to protect and promote knowledge, is a valuable one, but in it the former President’s subconscious was writ large and he invested heavily in it primarily for that reason.

So it was little surprise, then, that when Islamic fundamentalists recently destroyed a great many manuscripts and buildings in Africa’s cultural capital, it was those closest to the President who were loudest in their condemnation.

Essop Pahad, Mbeki’s thuggish alter ego, said: “I’m absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be. I can’t imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent. They could not be in their right minds.”

Ebrahim Rasool, for years Mbeki’s voice in the Western Cape, in an article for the New Age saturated with self-promotion, opined: “I remember seeing the pride on the faces of South African artisans who helped their Malian counterparts construct this tribute… They may not have known what the manuscripts say [sic], but they knew it contained their collective pride.”

And Pallo Jordan, perhaps more an intellectual rival than Mbeki confidant, wrote: “An outer veneer of piety conceals the barbarism latent in all religious fundamentalism.”

Significantly, the populist, demagogic rabble President Zuma has emboldened during his term had little to say. The world of ideas being of little interest to those consumed by the material delights of the trough into which their faces are so deeply buried.

Read these various responses in full and it is evident a rich vein of African nationalism flows through them: Timbuktu was symbol, first and foremost a source of potential pride for Africans; a distant second, an intellectual project. It was, primarily, an exercise in self-esteem.

What a horrific and irreconcilable contradiction it must have been for such committed Africanists to see a project so steeped in historical romanticism burnt and pillaged by ignorant savages who should have been overcome by the intellectual majesty of it all, as opposed to the base urge to damage and destroy.

“Those who call themselves African”, Rasool labeled them – an insult without peer in the eyes of the continent’s cultural gatekeepers.

Truly this was ‘unAfrican’ behavior.

Or was it?

A brief survey of South Africa’s recent history suggests if anyone is good at destroying libraries and all that they represent, it is South Africans themselves. We have at least four ‘Timbuktu moments’ every year. And, unlike our (un)African counterparts up North, rarely do we leave anything standing. No, we burn our libraries to the ground. Complete and total destruction. So at least we have that feather in our continental cap.

This fact is not well documented. One reads occasionally in the media, as one out of a litany of damaged public properties, a library was burnt down during some or other public protest. But, for the most part, they are subsumed by other, more sensational acts of violence. Only now and then does their destruction merit a stand-alone story. Certainly there is next to no editorial analysis of this particular attitude. And yet it is deeply significant. There is something profoundly wrong with a society that burns books.

I have attempted to compile a list of these incidents. It was extremely hard going. No one documents such things. The information is scattered, partial and hidden away in other stories. The Library and Information Association of South Africa, to its credit, has on occasion spoken out against some of these acts but even its responses are unsystematic. Significantly, the Minister of Arts and Culture has never taken a real or sustained stand on the matter, or tried to quantify the problem.

At least 15 public libraries have been destroyed in civil unrest since 2009 – just under four a year. And remember these are simply those instances reported in the media and where damage occurred during public protests. Other damage to libraries – break-ins, vandalism, theft, etc. – I have not recorded; and not every incident will have been covered by the press – only the most obvious acts of wanton destruction, on a scale grand enough to warrant a newspaper’s attention.

You can find the full detailed list here; be warned, it is a depressing read.

The cost is difficult to estimate. But, on the available evidence, one could safely say it takes around R2.5 million to reestablish a destroyed library (to rebuild the building itself – the biggest cost, replace books and purchase new infrastructure). And that is a conservative estimate. When public protestors destroyed the Gugulethu Community Centre, in Khutsong in 2005, including a library and computer center, the estimated damage was R8 million. So a moderate average of at least R10 million a year then. Certainly some R40 million over the past four.

Of course, those sorts of hard numbers miss something unique about libraries. They represent much more than concrete alone. They are a place where abstract ideals, ideas, stories, values, knowledge and principles are protected and celebrated. Libraries are a test of any society’s commitment to enlightenment. In a country where reading centers are a rare commodity and education generally maligned, an assault on them is indicative of a well-set and destructive ignorance. One which strengthens its obtuse influence over a people when its agents destroy these small safe-havens, where education might prosper and intellectual curiosity is brought out of the shadows and into the light.

On a more practical level, not every book can be replaced and, when several other public buildings are torched or reduced to rumble in turn, such are the demands on local government expenditure a new library is rarely a top priority. Nor is there any guarantee a replacement will be to the same standard of whatever preceded it. So, to destroy a library is not merely to vacuum a dedicated educational space but often to ensure it is not filled for some substantial time thereafter.

What does it say about a society and culture that destroys libraries? Perhaps, more pertinently, what does it say about a society that keeps quiet about this sort of behavior? About its priorities and aspirations? Nothing good, that is for sure.

Do we describe in bold headlines those responsible for such acts as “barbarians”, people out of their “right mind?” Or do we excuse and explain it all away, as the justifiable anger of a people deprived of those things they deserve and need?

Jordan was quick to condemn the “latent barbarism” concealed behind piety and inherent to religious fundamentalism. I wonder, how might he describe the behavior of those responsible for burning to the ground Tlotlang Thuto Middle school, in June last year, including a library and computer center. It was reported that community members broke down the burglar-proofed door of the school kitchen, took out two gas cylinders and placed them in separate rooms before opening them and setting the classrooms alight. Latent barbarism? Or blatant barbarism? And the motivation? There was no religious fundamentalism involved.

And what of our “collective pride”? Is it limited to abstract ideas, and far off places? It doesn’t seem to apply to bricks and mortar. Of course we daren’t admit to any problem, low self-esteem runs in two directions: both the cause of false pretention and the lack of introspection alike.

Those who would dispute my contention Timbuktu served primarily as a metaphor for African low self-esteem must answer the following question: why no out-pouring of emotion about the ongoing assault on our country’s libraries? Why the silence? Why is Timbuktu sufficient to fuel enough outrage to put pen to paper but an ever-growing culture of knowledge-destruction at home not worthy even of a whisper? Both are indicative of an attitude to written knowledge and those centers designed to protect and promote it.

South Africa is a land of extremes and contradictions, and extreme contradictions at that. We are perfectly capable of celebrating knowledge as ostensible evidence of our aspirations while we burn books at home, to vent our frustration.

President Zuma’s government has come to represent and embody such ignorance. It is an institution no more interested in facilitating and encouraging ideas than it is capable of appreciating their true worth. In turn, it has engendered a culture of ignorance. But you would be wrong if you thought his predecessor’s administration engendered anything otherwise. It is mere coincidence that Timbuktu represented some knowledge-based concern – above all else it was a public relations lynchpin for the African renaissance – a dawn, we are told, always just over the next horizon but which never actually breaks. Certainly there has never been a meaningful commitment in word and deed to champion libraries and reading in South Africa. And financially they enjoy next to no real support. Where today Zuma’s government encourages ignorance, Mbeki’s eroded away what solid ground there was, on which knowledge and education might prosper. The former, then, was the inevitable consequence of the latter.

The result is a politically-correct environment where our leaders wax lyrical about abstract ideas like Timbuktu and the wonder of African culture but, were they to turn their gaze to what happens on the ground, in no less than their own backyard, they would see an entirely different, uglier side to African culture. So much is made today of culture, of what it is to be ‘an African’. So little of how us ‘Africans’ really behave. Nothing better illustrates the gulf between the romantic archetype and hard reality than the destruction of libraries.

To those enraged (often quite rightly) at the appalling services provided by a failing state, a library is no more a sacred symbol for human potential, than a temporary convenience which, when set ablaze, might generate some small attention. Ironically, most often, it doesn’t even achieve that.

And we have learnt to behave like that. Numerous ANC governments have taught us to degrade and devalue the good standing libraries should enjoy. Education, books, knowledge, these things are not sacrosanct. Libraries are nice-to-haves, no more valuable than the next building in the street. We know too that their destruction is no more frowned upon than the setting alight of a car tire. Material objects and ideas, we have learnt that you can burn both with impunity.

It would be an interesting exercise indeed, to find out who was arrested for the destruction of those libraries I have listed and what consequences they faced. I can find no follow-up on any of those arrests reported, another common pattern indicative to so much transient reporting on this issue. The burning library itself, sometimes a dramatic picture; the hard graft involved in tracking through the justice system the fate of those responsible, an onerous task too much for our social commentators – often no more invested in solving the problem than its perpetrators.

“There is more than one way to burn a book”, said Ray Bradbury. And of these many incendiary devices, no doubt, ignorance is the preeminent threat. To burn a library is to inflict on one’s self and one’s community a self-destructive blow not easily recovered from. It is also to make a statement about who you are and what you value. The two work well together, each one reinforcing the other. Likewise, our response to such acts says much about us; for if it is accepted as justifiable to burn a library, it makes sense not to condemn it in any meaningful way. Ignorance sanctioning ignorance.

Many people responsible for the destruction of public property experience an anger and resentment that is absolutely legitimate. They have been deprived for decades of those basic services any citizen should rightfully enjoy. One can and should condemn the manner in which that anger manifests but what I offer here is not only a critique of those choices but our response to them, and to pose two simple questions: when and why did we learn it was justifiable to burn books and how has it come to pass we care so little when we do?

Perhaps those so infused with outrage over Timbuktu might dare to venture an answer.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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