Intellectual Injustice

Last week I was looking for a book for my research. It’s written by a South African author, published in South Africa, and is going to be one of my key texts, so I thought I’d buy it. WRONG. It cost R600 ($60). When I googled the same book in the USA on amazon, it was $14 (R140).

And this goes not only for “academic” books, but for any book here in South Africa. A loaf of bread costs R7, but a book costs R300. That means books are an exclusive item for rich people– and they probably have enough books anyway. 

But people don’t have to own books to have access to them, a decent library does just fine. And our area does have a really great library…but it’s down in town about a 20 minute drive away, which means transport costs are high. I have money, so that’s not a problem for me…but what about all the kids, teens and adults who live in Sweetwaters?

One of the fun things I get to do at iThemba is to help our Year of Your Life volunteers with their English. We’re working together on learning how to write a research paper– a daunting task for any fresh-out-of-highschooler, but imagine how daunting it would be if your school didn’t have a library.

Some of these teens want to go on to university next year or in the near future. I remember how I was intimidated by my university library, but I grew up with good school libraries, and parents who took me to the public library all the time. I knew the “rules”. I knew how to find books. For the teens graduating from high school in Sweetwaters, finding a book in the library or an article online is a major hurdle, never mind figuring out how to reference your sources and write a coherent paper.

I grew up with shelves and shelves of books in our house, I could read before first grade, my parents read aloud to me,  I learned words like “conducive” because those were words my parents used all the time. I suppose you could say, I started university with a high level of “literary capital” that I just took for granted. These kids might pass Matric standardized tests pretty well, but they’re just being set up for failure in university because they haven’t had access to the literary capital that more privileged kids have.

But in light of that, here’s some good news:

South Africans now have free access to wikipedia on their phones 🙂 It’s not JSTOR, but maybe one day.  Until then, at least we’ve taken one small step towards ending intellectual injustice!

2 thoughts on “Intellectual Injustice

  1. I had no idea books were so expensive there. Computer access via phones and pads should help with the inequality. Our library lets you check out books online. That helps with the transportation cost problem.


    1. Yes– everyone here has phones and so with digitalization hopefully more of that can happen. As far as I know, though, you can’t check out books online yet here, but hopefully that’s on the way. SA led the way with internet banking… maybe if books were a “security issue” more would be spent to make online access better! 🙂


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