Libraries burning again

In 2013 I published an article in Libri about the alarming number of cases in which community libraries had been deliberately set alight in South African townships and informal settlements. Reportedly, this was done by individuals or groups from the communities which those libraries were intended to serve (Lor 2013). What was particularly distressing to South Africa’s library profession was that this was happening after the end of apartheid, under a democratic government which has been making considerable investments in expanding access to library and information services.

After the publication of the article and a related article on “Risks and benefits of political visibility” (Lor 2016), my attention shifted to other areas, and especially the imperative of completing my book. Having not paid much attention to events in community libraries, it was with dismay that I read a statement issued on 13 July 2019 by LIASA President Nikki Crowster, reacting to the burning down of the Letsopa Community Library, in Ottosdal, North West Province.  The Letsopa Community Library was completed in 2014 at a cost of ZAR 12 million (approximately USD 1 million) to serve one of the poorest communities in the province. It was reported to be a state-of-the art community library, which included a toy library for children and special facilities for the blind.

A few minutes’ web searching turned up several more recent cases in which libraries have been damaged or destroyed by arson during the last year: at least three cases during July 2018 and three more during July 2019. The fact that these cases occur in July may be a coincidence, or it could be significant.  In July it is winter here, and the frustrations of residents lacking reliable water, electricity, sanitation, and road infrastructure must be aggravated by the cold, dark days. Underlying this comment is the general assumption that these incidents are part of “service delivery protests”, where residents of townships express their dissatisfaction with local conditions in demonstrations which routinely turn violent. During the protests, major roads are blocked by burning tyres, vehicles are stopped, looted, and torched. Schools, youth centres, municipal offices, clinics, and municipal vehicles as well as the homes of some elected municipal councillors, have been targeted, along with factories and businesses in adjoining industrial areas and private vehicles which inadvertently entered the conflict zone. In the nearby coastal town of Plettenberg Bay, it has been estimated that damage caused during recent protests amounted to around ZAR 50 million (approximately USD 3,5 million), and that the town’s image as a popular seaside destination, built up over years, has been severely damaged.

It should be noted that libraries are not the only facilities subjected to arson attacks. They are by no means the most frequent targets. The assets targeted may bear no relation to the subject of the protest. Schools are frequent targets in protests entirely unrelated to education. In the Zebediela area of the Limpopo Province, a primary school library was set alight as part of protesters’ move to shut down all schools in the area – an action which would have dire consequences for learners preparing for their end-of-school examinations. The reason for the protest? Community members are demanding the construction of a tarred (macadamized) road to serve the community. To outsiders it is puzzling that community members seem bent on destroying the facilities which have been provided for them since the end of apartheid, facilities intended to serve as an instrument of development. There is little evidence that libraries – like schools – are being torched for any reason other than they happen to be there, and that they are seen by the protesters as part or symbol of government.

Various explanations have been offered for the frequency of community protests and the violence which accompanies them. The explanation most often advanced is frustration with the lack of services provided by municipal and provincial government, as mentioned above. In May last year the Minister of Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Zweli Mkhize, reported to Parliament that 87, roughly 31% of the country’s municipalities are “dysfunctional or distressed”. In May this year, the Auditor-General reported that only 18 of South Africa’s 278 municipalities audited had “clean audits”, and that the situation had regressed since the previous year. Community libraries, as municipal agencies, cannot fail to be affected by the crises affecting far too many municipalities. Schools, although not run by municipalities, are frequent targets too.

Secondly, it has been suggested that the protests can sometimes be linked to power struggles within the political party controlling the municipality. A position as a mayor or municipal councillor offers tempting opportunities for self-enrichment and nepotism, hence there is intense competition for these positions.

Thirdly, it is often reported in the media that “criminal elements” exploit the popular discontent, officials stating in the case of Plettenberg Bay, that

the overwhelming public evidence is that this is rampant crime, accompanied by violence, looting, theft and the vandalism, malicious damage of public and private property; with a total disregard of the losses and major inconvenience to business owners, their employees and families…

In earlier cases, it was reported that equipment such as computers was stolen before the buildings were set on fire, while theft of computers and other valuables from school premises remains widespread.

Fourth, the violent contestation can also be interpreted as a legacy of apartheid. Frustrated by the lack of response from the post-apartheid authorities, communities are reverting to a repertoire of actions which they had employed during their struggles against the apartheid regime.

Journalists, political scientists, sociologists and criminologists have written extensively about popular protests (summarized in Lor 2013). It has been pointed out that the term “service delivery protests” is an over-simplification, because not all protests are concerned with poor service delivery. Instead, the term “popular protests” is preferred. The various disciplines take different approaches to this phenomenon. One of the more graphic and insightful studies was that carried out by an interdisciplinary team at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. The title of the report, The smoke that calls, reflects the rationale often cited by protesters: setting fire is the only effective means of drawing the attention of the authorities to their grievances. The researchers pointed to the rapid processes of post-apartheid class formation, in which “a new elite is emerging” along with “a large underclass of unemployed and precariously employed persons”. They placed this in the context of the transition from apartheid to democracy, which they saw giving rise to “fierce struggles over inclusion and exclusion within the elite, between elites and subalterns, and within the subaltern classes themselves” (Von Holdt et al. 2011, 6). These struggles involve contestation over what it means to be a citizen, and play themselves out in community protests.

Where does this leave libraries?

There are no easy answers. Libraries need to be embedded in their communities. They need to be physically located there, even if it places them in harm’s way. If communities are distressed, libraries will be affected.  Ultimately, if we as librarian believe that in the long term libraries contribute to the development of healthier, socially cohesive and inclusive communities, that is where libraries need to be.


Holdt, Karl von, Malose Langa, Sepetla Molapo, Nomfundo Mogapi, Kindiza Ngubeni, Jacob Dlamini, and Adele Kirsten. 2011. ‘The Smoke That Calls: Insurgent Citizenship, Collective Violence and the Struggle for a Place in the New South Africa. Eight Case Studies of Community Protest and Xenophobic Violence’. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation; and Society, Work and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.

Lor, Peter Johan. 2013. ‘Burning Libraries for the People: Questions and Challenges for the Library Profession in South Africa’. Libri 63 (4): 359–72. doi:10.1515/libri-2013-0028.

———. 2016. ‘Risks and Benefits of Visibility: Librarians Navigating Social and Political Turbulence’. Library Trends 65 (2): 108–27. doi:10.1353/lib.2016.0025.



About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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