The American academic Charles W. Elliot once said, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” When prompted to explain why we have book reading sessions with Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), I often state that firstly, we wish to inculcate a culture of reading amongst human beings that transcends our barriers whether they are based on race, age, gender, or any other classification. Secondly, we believe this is a habit that makes one enlightened, mentally active, and develops a book reading hobby. Thirdly, it is good to stay abreast of any developments through reading. Lastly, to be busy with something constructive, such as reading a book, speaks directly to human nature.
The question then becomes, how do we select which books to read? When I asked my wife to select a book for me to read, she chose the Bible. My response was that I needed a book that could be read and dissected by a wider audience, and for those of us who are religious, religious texts such as the Bible should be read all the time.
The reading sessions at UJ are a significant part of Prof. Marwala’s legacy as the VC. I happened to piggyback on this idea and wish to continue contributing as long as the University feels that I am a meaningful contributor. Does this take a lot of time? Indeed. One spends time identifying a book that will have a powerful message for the participants with authentic lessons that they will absorb. Secondly, one must take the time to read and understand the book thoroughly to avoid failing to deliver the intended message. Thirdly, preparation for the day of discussion is imperative. Reading any book can seem like a simple exercise but truthfully, although reading is a basic skill, it can be quite a complex task.
Who benefits from these book reading sessions? This is like asking the obvious because it is the University community that benefits. My hope is that we can extend this to include young people who are still in high school. I believe that the meticulous process of listening and participating in discussions is the key to human enlightenment and allows us to critically think. For a high school learner to have the opportunity to exchange ideas with a Professor from a university is a fantastic experience.
Are these sessions easy to access? The UJ Library does a fantastic job of advertising these sessions, and I believe there is potential to reach even more people to participate. It is also critical for participants to be assisted with access through infrastructure that includes computers, cell phones, and data or Wi-Fi availability. All this comes at an expense but should not be a hindrance as they can be funded or sponsored.
What does the future hold? Prof Marwala and I have a vision of an enlightened populace, made up of confident youth who can be catalysts who shape the future. This can be taken a step further. If we are to create good leaders, it must be done on the basis of reading. After all, as Prof Marwala often says, the source of good leadership is knowledge, and the source of knowledge is experience. In this instance, the experience is not only the reading of books but the engagement that follows it. Not only do we build a culture of continuous learning this way, but we also open ourselves to alternative narratives that widen our world view. Of course, this also opens an avenue for economic development.
In South Africa, we grapple with high levels of unemployment and inequality, which exist in tandem with our high levels of illiteracy. If we are to tackle these scourges, we must acknowledge that education is the key. There is evidence, for instance, that there is a direct correlation between literacy and income. According to UNESCO, South Africa’s functional literacy level is high at 85%. However, this is limited to functional literacy, which is defined as having the reading and writing skills of a nine-year-old, which is inadequate. If we are really to subvert our economic context, we must begin with increasing literacy levels.
As the former President of the United States Bill Clinton once said, “Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.”
Mike Teke is the Chair of Council, University of Johannesburg, and prominent businessman.