When I was a little white girl, growing up in 1980s apartheid South Africa, the country's Eastern Cape was considered a no-go area. But earlier this year, with the aid of a journalism fellowship from philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundation, I spent three months getting to know this part of my homeland and investigating how 16 years of democracy have changed the lives of rural Xhosa people.
Mbotyi is a coastal village where residents share their land with a luxury tourist lodge. Although the lodge has electricity, the village is not connected, and the local school has no phones, photocopiers or computers. Teenage pupils sit at small desks more suited to six-year-olds, and the eldest pupils have to be educated outside because there are not enough classrooms.
"We are still living in the past," said one of the teachers. "There have been no changes at all. It's just like before."
Rural schools continue to be disadvantaged by lack of resources and, in many schools, teachers do not bother to show up for work. One consequence was that, in 2008, only 62.5 per cent of matriculants (SA equivalent of Highers) passed.
I visited Gungubele Junior Secondary School a few hours before the end of the school day. I found the children already on their way home. "It's pay day, so the teachers have left early to get their money," a pupil explained, dragging a green plastic chair behind him. This school has no furniture and pupils have to bring their own seat each morning.
It is easy to understand why some teachers have simply given up. During the apartheid era, white youngsters had access to every education resource, while black children had to make do with an inferior curriculum.
The so-called Bantu education was designed to dispossess black people intellectually, and so black schools did not have libraries - they didn't "need" them. Today, 92 per cent of South African schools - 20,000 schools - still do not have libraries; the worst affected is the Eastern Cape, where only 166 out of 5,723 schools have libraries. The 7 per cent of SA schools that do have libraries are the former whites-only schools.
This shouldn't have been the case. In the late 1990s, the Department of Education replaced the didactic, "don't-think-for-yourself" apartheid curriculum (which I experienced first-hand) with "outcome-based education" requiring students to do their own research. But they failed to implement a national policy on school libraries and, in 2009, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga provoked fury when she commented that a stand- alone library for every school "would be unattainable, considering the historical neglect".
However, Cape Town-based activists Equal Education have done the maths and calculated that to build 19,808 school libraries would cost R7.9 billion (pound;0.7 billion) - compared with the R13.61 billion the Government spent on 10 stadiums for the World Cup.
Meantime, pupils have to rely on public libraries which are swamped with learners. In one rural community, the public library serves 200 schools. Siyasanga Qomayi is a grade 12 pupil at Luhlaza High School in Khayelitsha, one of the few schools in the area with a functioning library. "My friends in the other schools struggle", she says. "They have to go to a public library where there is not enough information. They have to travel long distances and it is not safe for them."
A 2009 study found that 49.9 per cent of grade 6 learners (age 11-12) could not understand the meaning of basic written information, ranking South Africa behind its less-developed neighbours, Mozambique and Swaziland.
Over the past year, Equal Education has marched on Parliament and held a 24-hour fast to bring attention to this crisis. It has also started a library creation project, The Bookery, based in Cape Town. It collects and catalogues book donations to build libraries for disadvantaged schools in the townships.
Books, however, remain an expensive luxury item in South Africa, partly because they are taxed. When I moved to the UK, I was thrilled to find a book cost as much as a sandwich, while in South Africa it costs a day's wage. Without access to libraries, most South African children will never take a book home with them.
- This month, the Old Barn at Dumbreck Riding School in Pollok Country Park, Glasgow, will become a donation centre for children's fiction and educational books. To donate books, contact Claire Bell on 0771 267 4802, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.