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What PRAESA's award means for literacy in South Africa

Jonathan Jansen, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, speaks to us about what PRAESA's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award means for the literacy landscape of South Africa:

Growing up amidst the poverty and hardship of the Cape Flats, I remember one thing from my childhood—it was how the presence of books would come to change my life forever. My mother was a nurse and she was given old books to bring home from Princess Alice Orthopaedic Hospital. The books fit the name of the hospital, I suppose, for we read Enid Blyton and other common literatures from English culture. What I remember, though, was being lifted out of my circumstances into foreign lands, exciting adventures and youthful dilemmas in ways unimaginable in a time before television. In the process I learnt to read, expand my vocabulary and, most of all, dream.

This is precisely what PRAESA (the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) does by exposing thousands of poor learners to the priceless gift of reading books in their own languages. Where others complain bitterly about “the lack of” provision of teaching and reading books by government, PRAESA has since 1992 simply gone out into the townships and done the work. In the process, individual lives have been enriched and whole communities transformed through the tireless work of a humble NGO in Cape Town.

I was therefore overcome with joy when PRAESA won the prestigious 2015 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – the largest award for children’s literature and reading promotion in the world. It simply could not have happened to a more deserving organisation. The award will not only inspire and encourage the staff and supporters of PRAESA; it will also send a reminder to development and language activists in South Africa as well as the continent that our work counts, and that our labours in the corners of the education vineyard that governments sometimes cannot reach, do not go unnoticed.

In a country in which the school system fails most of our children, the work of PRAESA has become more urgent than ever in order to mend the broken nets through which so many learners fall every day. The ability to read brings so many benefits, not only cognitive and intellectual, but also personal and political. It builds confidence that spills over into achievement in other school subjects. It levels the playing grounds by race, gender and social class like no other educational intervention. Most of all, once you have acquired the gift of reading, nobody can take it away.

Thank you, PRAESA. I for one am immensely proud of your award.

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