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The majority of schools do not have libraries and it will cost a staggering R2,2-billion to build one in each school, to stock it with books and to pay the salaries of librarians for 10 years, says the civil society group Equal Education (EE).
"It is shocking. It really goes to the heart of the South African education crisis," said the EE's Doron Isaacs.
The lack of libraries significantly contributed to the poor grasp of literacy and numeracy among millions of South African pupils, he said.
"Many Grade 1s will arrive at school and for the entire year they will only get to read about three or four books, whereas children in (former) model C schools will have two to three library books in their bags every day from Grade one," he added.
The Department of Basic Education said 78 percent of schools do not have libraries, but the EE believes the actual shortage to be as high as 92 percent.
"The 78 percent figure is the number of schools that do not have a physical space for a library. The other ones do have a room which is potentially a library, but is empty. It is only about 8 percent of schools that have a functional library with books," he said.
Statistics released by the department show that more than 19 000 primary and secondary schools do not have libraries or computer centres.
KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape have the most shortages, with more than 4 000 schools in each province without a library.
Gauteng and the Western Cape have fewer than 1 000 schools each that do not have libraries or computer centres.
Isaacs added that the R2,2bn needed to bring libraries to schools was a small price to pay. "We know there is money for stadiums and there is sometimes money for arms, but education should be an important priority of this country."
DA education spokeswoman Juanita Kloppers-Lourens said the DA - which asked the parliamentary question that revealed the statistics - fully supported the idea that each school should have a library.
"A library is critical for improving education. Not only does it give children access to reading material and expose them to the joys of reading, but it often provides a space for study that is not available at home. It is astonishing and depressing that so many schools do not have this facility, despite the enormous amount we spend on education," Kloppers-Lourens said.
Basic Education acting director-general Bobby Soobrayan said every school that was built from scratch or is refurbished would have a library included in its new structure.
For the rest of the schools, he said, the department was exploring alternative options such as putting up mini-libraries with selected books inside classrooms. Where a school had its own library, the department encouraged it to share the library with the schools in its vicinity that do not have any.
He said schools were also being encouraged to use community libraries and, where possible, computers were being installed.