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In four consecutive days of violent protests in early May, 17 schools in Vuwani, Limpopo, were gutted by fire leaving scores of children uncertain about their schooling.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) put the number of torched schools at 24 and the affected learners as just over 26 987.
But whatever the number, one school building reduced to ashes warrants a national catastrophe. Ex President Thabo Mbeki called it criminal.
But as Vuwani burns, another sort of fire is raging in Mohlakeng, Randfontein. A group of young people have knuckled down to operate what is called the Underground Library.
It operates in the backyard shack of house number 2555 Moroka Street in this township, far west of Johannesburg.
It is the home of Neo Mathetsa, 28, the older of two children.
Daubed on its walls outside on its walls is the famed Joseph Brodsky quote: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
The makeshift library used to be the gym of this trained thespian, Neo, who graduated last year with a qualification in drama from the Market Laboratory, downtown Jozi. Mathetsa is a voracious reader, he says, and has always been involved in arts and culture drives in the townships, from acting in plays to setting up book clubs.
In the half-hour we spoke to him, he’d said this like a mantra: people must read.
It was this passion to spread the word about the joys of reading that saw him and his mates go around the township begging for book donations from residents. “We went
around in wheelbarrows and waste bins,” he says.
The bulk of what they collected was educational books. He estimates his stock at well over 30 000 books, spread on-site at the Underground Library and a storeroom in Finsbury – just west of Mohlakeng. A piece of land outside his mom’s house was donated to them by the local municipality and it is here where they hope to set up a proper brick and mortar structure.
The educational books were not a random decision. Mathetsa and his buddies help mostly primary schoolchildren with their homework. This takes place every day after school when his folks’ yard resembles school premises, with kids all over the place poring over books with the help of tutors.
Unlike their peers in Vuwani fate would prove kinder to the learners of Mohlakeng as, a few months into the founding of the Underground library, the main community library was gutted by fire during a service delivery protest on 4 February 2015.
“We were gutted,” says Mathetsa, “that meant our relationship with the library was messed up. We now had nowhere to go to source books, other than the donations.”
Among the books they collected in their campaign to set up were titles with the municipality library stamp that borrowers had never bothered to return.
Borrowers do not have to pay to take books at the Underground, says Mathetsa.
Tshidiso Tlharipe, spokesperson of the Randfontein Local Municipality says the community library has been refurbished and will reopen in the third week of May.
“The Randfontein Local Municipality through their insurer, AON made a successful claim for the refurbishment of the burned municipal offices; library and the pay point.”
“Since October 2015, the work for the refurbishment of the municipal offices began and the project is expected to be completed on the 13 May 2016. The Randfontein Local Municipality Pay Point Office, Library and Municipal Office are expected to be fully functional from the 31 May 2016.”
“The cost of refurbishing the buildings as claimed from the insurer is R12 Million,” said Tlharipe.
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