Joburg protesters demand library opens immediately

“There is no democracy without books” says Wits professor who joins calls for an end to the City library’s four-year closure

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Johannesburg residents protested outside the Johannesburg City Library on Saturday for it to be opened immediately. The library has been closed to the public since the lockdowns in 2020. Photos: Ihsaan Haffejee

Dozens of Johannesburg residents protested outside the shuttered City Library on Saturday, demanding that it be reopened.

It has been over four years since residents have been able to access the library which holds over 1.5-million books, according to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, as well as a vast collection of archived material not available anywhere else.

The library was closed in May 2021, but access had already been curtailed since the beginning of the lockdowns in 2020.

The protest on Saturday was organised by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and other organisations under the banner of the Johannesburg Crisis Alliance.

The City of Johannesburg claims that a report into the building’s condition raised concerns “on civil, structural, electrical and mechanical services”, and that the library needed to be closed for repair.

The City had intended to open the library in February 2024 but has now stated that repairs will only be completed in 2025.

Scaffolding around part of the library which has been closed to the public since 2020.

Before lockdown, this popular library was packed with people, young and old, reading, studying and using free access to the internet for research and job seeking.

David Fleminger from Johannesburg Heritage Foundation said that residents could not afford to be denied access, especially in light of the country’s literacy crisis.

“We are asking for accountability. We want to know why the library is still closed. There is a degree of urgency that we feel the City is not appreciating,” said Fleminger.

History and Politics Professor Achille Mbembe from Wits University also joined the protest. “This library is more than just a building. We should be demanding that our political parties commit to reinvest massively in expanding cultural public infrastructures. There is no democracy without books,” said Mbembe.

The protest on was organised by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and other civil society organisations under the banner of the Johannesburg Crisis Alliance.

An independent engineering report and inspection commissioned by Johannesburg Heritage Foundation found that the library could be partially reopened to the public while repairs are ongoing. The Foundation says it has been difficult to get in touch with City officials.

Many of the protesters told GroundUp that the library’s closure and the manner in which Joburg City officials have handled the situation is symptomatic of the dysfunctional coalition government which has had four different mayors since 2021.

Organisers said they had invited City officials to the protest, but none arrived. The demands of the protesters included that the library be partially reopened immediately and that necessary steps be taken to secure the archival collections.

TOPICS:  Local government

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