06/09/2017 15:03 SAST | Updated 06/09/2017 15:10 SAST

It's Not That South Africans Simply Don't Want To Read -- Access And Affordability Are Real Barriers

Only 14 percent are active readers.


As South Africa marks National Book Week this week, the "South Africans don't read" conversation has again come to the fore.

A 2016 National Survey into reading and book behaviour, commissioned by the SA Book Development Council, indicated that:

  • Only about 14 percent of South Africans are active readers;
  • 14 percent never read, while 23 percent hardly read;
  • 58 percent of households do not have any books in their home or six of out 10 adults live in households where there are absolutely no books present;
  • Reading comes in eighth place, compared with other leisure activities such as watching TV, shopping and cooking;
  • Digital reading is low overall, at 10 percent, compared with book reading at 35 percent.

But is it as simple as South Africans not wanting to read? The survey found that the cost of books and access to reading material are two of the main barriers to reading.

The cost of books
According to the national reading survey:

  • On average, retail book buyers spend R171 on books in-store;
  • 59 percent buy one book at a time;
  • Only 31 percent of retail buyers spend more than R200 per book.

Speaking to Women24, Jeremy Boraine, publishing director of Jonathan Ball Publishers, said books were relatively expensive because about half are imported from the US and UK -- currencies against which the rand is very weak.

Secondly, the local publishing market is not that big. Fewer copies are therefore printed to avoid ending up with surplus stock that has not been sold. This can also drastically push the unit cost per book.

Publishers also want to make a living, so the book price includes a mark-up.

Library access
According to research published in the SA Journal of Education, only 21 percent of government schools had libraries, only seven percent had stocked libraries while 79 percent of schools had no libraries at all.

Where there are libraries, whether in schools or in the community, the Library Information Association of SA has previously noted that they are under-resourced and lack qualified staff to manage the facilities.

According to the reading survey:

  • North West is the province with the lowest number of people who visit libraries, at 17 percent, followed closely by the Free State at 18 percent;
  • KwaZulu-Natal is the highest with 34 percent of the population visiting libraries, with Gauteng following closely at 30 percent.

From a publishing perspective, Boraine suggested government abolish VAT on books and to support the local publishing industry by investing in it through, for example, grants. Lastly and crucially, Boraine says South Africans should buy more books. This will help drive down the unit cost of printing.

There have also long been calls for the government to invest in building more public libraries, especially in remote communities -- something officials have publicly committed to doing. Doing so may attract children in those communities to use the space to read, do homework and even study for tests and examinations.

There are many benefits of reading:

  • Improves imagination
  • Increases intelligence
  • Builds vocabulary
  • Boosts brainpower
  • Improves cultural diversity and social cohesion