Children play at Thaba-Tshehlo Primary in Soweto, the huge township south of Johannesburg. They bounce around in their black and white uniforms.
The school has few resources, but it’s neat and clean.
As a hot wind swirls red dust around the stony playground, in the middle stands a slight, middle-aged man with kind eyes.
A decade ago Steve Tsakaris was just like most other businessmen in the city of gold, always chasing money.
“Business brought me to my knees and almost killed my soul and everything about me,” he said, reflecting on his former life.
Disenchanted, Tsakaris abandoned his quest for personal enrichment and embarked on a journey of self-discovery… or, “self-recovery” as he likes to describe it.
It was a path that led to a Zen Buddhist monastery, a career as a motivational speaker and eventually to Read to Rise, a nonprofit that distributes books in Soweto and encourages lower-grade primary school students to read.
“We have to catch them young, like between ages seven to nine,” Tsakaris explained. “If we can inculcate a love and respect for reading and for books when kids are very young, chances are they’ll carry on with this into high school and beyond, and this will have a massively positive impact on their future lives.”
Slipping through the cracks
Being able to read is one of life’s most important skills. But it’s something that many South Africans can’t do.
“Children that are illiterate cannot be educated. So a person like that is completely disempowered. Reading is the most fundamental of all forms of education. So maths and science are important; all of that stuff is important. But you can’t do that without reading,” said Tsakaris.
Tankiso Kgatla, one of the teachers Tsakaris works with, said many of her pupils can’t read properly.
“Sometimes their reading level is too low for them to comprehend even their own classwork,” she said.
Tsakaris said many children leave school without being able to read adequately because harried teachers haven’t got the time to instruct them properly.
“The kids are slipping through the cracks of the system. The system is overloaded. The average class size that we work with in Soweto is 40 kids. That’s a lot of kids for a teacher to cope with; 40 kids and above.
“I visited a school recently where there were 57 kids in a class. Because there’s such a demand for schooling and not enough schools and teachers, children who don’t have the required skills, like reading, are simply passed to the next grade, because they have to make way for the next wave of pupils," Tsakaris said. "They leave school and they’re functionally illiterate.”
Children not reading
The South African government has built thousands of schools since the country became a democracy more than 20 years ago.
Its latest budget reflects that it plans to spend about 640 billion rands — almost $50 billion — on basic education over the next three years.
But the government maintains this still isn’t enough to establish libraries at schools. As a result, reading standards are dropping in South Africa.
Tsakaris believes having no libraries at most public schools in South Africa is “boosting” illiteracy.
“Children not only can’t read in this country, but also they don’t have access to books… Our research showed that children should be reading about 40 to 50 books a year. In most cases, they’re reading none,” he said.
Reading for pleasure
In a dimly lit classroom at Thaba-Tshehlo Primary, Tsakaris addressed a second grade class of exuberant eight- and nine-year-olds.
Read to Rise provided them with a mini-library of 50 new books, with titles like "Mum’s Red Hat."
“The children are now excited, because our focus is also about reading for pleasure. We don’t give textbooks; we don’t give books that are mandatory. We want to inspire kids to read for pleasure,” said Tsakaris.
He gave each student a copy of a book titled "Oaky and the Sun."
On the glossy, bright cover an oak tree smiles and a sun wearing spectacles grins.
Tsakaris explained, “It’s a story about an acorn that grows into a tree, but actually it’s about the personal development of the child. It’s a very symbolic, very powerful story that the children get; it’s a very simple story as well. It’s the first book that they’ve ever owned, right? They don’t believe that we’re giving them their own book.”
He said it’s “paramount” for Read to Rise to distribute only brand-new books to children.
“When you give a child a second-hand, hand-me-down, torn book, what message are you giving the child? When you give the child a brand new book, you’re telling them, ‘You’re special; you’re important…’”
Reading leads to dreaming
But Tsakaris doesn’t just hand out books; nor does he teach kids how to read.
“Our task isn’t to replace the schooling system,” he said emphatically.
According to Tsakaris, the Read to Rise program is designed to inspire youngsters to read more by themselves… and thereby improve their reading.
The strategy involves a lot of fun, including singing.
Tsakaris singles out each child who reads, praising them and making them feel special and loved, encouraging them to read, activities their stressed teachers hardly ever have time for.
He called a girl to the front of the class. She opened her copy of "Oaky and the Sun" and read — from beginning to end — without a single hesitation or mistake.
Just a few months ago eight-year-old Karabo Mokhere struggled to read a single sentence. Now, she often reads to Tsakaris’s potential donors, providing strong evidence of Read to Rise’s success.
“I love to read because it makes me happy, and I love to read because it makes my mind grow,” Mokhere told VOA.
Her confidence has also grown — so much that the previously reserved little girl now says she’ll use her reading skills to become a medical doctor one day.
Tsakaris maintains that her dream isn’t impossible.
“People that can read and can educate themselves are able to rise out of their circumstances,” he said.
Reading towards ‘metamorphosis’
Kgatla said Read to Rise’s books, combined with Tsakaris’s motivation of her pupils and follow-up lessons, have transformed Thaba-Tshehlo Primary.
“The whole school is abuzz," she said. "They all want to be part of this reading program… We see more and more children taking up books, reading them, returning them [to the mini-library], taking up books, reading them, and so on.”
The teacher said her students’ newfound reading aptitude also improved their general schoolwork.
“I cannot believe the confidence that being able to read well has given these children,” Kgatla said. “I have pupils now who are no longer struggling in maths, for example, and I believe that’s because they can read better which makes their comprehension better.”
Tsakaris said the “metamorphosis” that children undergo when they embrace and enjoy reading, is dramatic.
“You see smiles in their faces; you see their energy change… The light comes on now that there is a way out; there’s a door; we’re not stuck in this box; the world is a lot bigger than we thought it was. And that’s what reading does to people: it gives them access to a larger world…”
Tsakaris, too, has a vision of a different world… In which the “scourge” of children who can’t read properly is consigned to South Africa’s past.