I was a teenager less than a decade ago so I can’t really say when the shift happened. The paradigm shift that moved the ground beneath us, creating a gulf between my generation and every generation that came before it, making our social lives and our digital lives start to seem like the same thing. Facebook and Twitter only hit South African shores after I’d graduated from high school but the unprecedented penetration of mobile phones changed everything. In Africa, more people have access to mobile phones than to water – Google it.
I remember in eighth grade how my friends and I would ache for the clock to strike 8pm, signalling the start of offpeak call time. We never actually called each other, of course, but we texted as though we were possessed. A text became far cheaper to send after 8pm so on a teenager’s budget it made sense to wait it out until late to share the day’s gossip or flirt with a random boy. We rarely used our phones for anything profound or innovative. But then a new shift came: mobile technology started up an affair with Web 2.0 and some South African teenagers started doing something profound with their phones.
Thousands of them started to wait up until midnight, staring at tiny screens in crowded one-room low-cost housing and informal settlements. They weren’t waiting for cheap texts; they were waiting for cheap books.
South Africa has no shortage of great writers. For a relatively small, developing country, we have an incredible number of internationally acclaimed authors writing everything from hard-hitting investigative journalism to children’s picture books. What we unfortunately don’t have is an equally vibrant and diverse trade publishing industry. Books are prohibitively expensive for the majority of South Africans and usually cost more than a full day’s work at minimum wage. For these and other sad and well-known facts, the vast majority of our teens often don’t read anything beyond their textbooks.
This isn’t to say that they don’t want to though. Which is why FunDza Literary Trust, a non-profit reading promotion agency, is giving them what they want: cheap, easy accessible, quality YA lit. Through its mobi-site and its presence on South African mobile social networking platform MXit, FunDza has brought multilingual YA contemporary fiction, autobiographies, poetry, and even science fiction to local readers. Even better, they’re working with our abundant pool of writing talent to do it – serialising the works of award-winning writers like Tracey Farren, Cynthia Jele, Sarah Lotz and Lauri Kubuitsile so that it’s available on any mobile device, at any time.
Of course, the concept of mobile novels is nothing new – especially if you follow the literary scene in Japan and China. The difference is that in South Africa, reading YA is not just a fun pastime. In the proud tradition of all of our literature, it is also social activism, civil participation, education and, for many, it could be a ticket out of the vicious cycle of poverty. It is just as Dr Seuss said: “The more you read; the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
South Africa is a big, messy, cultural hotpot; youthful and full of big dreams. Couple that with technological innovation and the immense talent and generosity of our local authors and you get a body of work capable of drawing in young readers from all over Africa and the world.
Bontle Senne is the Managing Director of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation (@pukubooks): an organisation trying to bridge the literary and digital divide for Southern African children and young adults. She is 24 and lives in Johannesburg.