No time for reading? The real reason why book reading is declining in South Africa

Written by: Alexandra Cronberg

Put on Sabina’s hat. Wait for the train in sweltering heat with Ifemelu. Sit down with Nathan Zuckerman and talk about the inevitability of getting people wrong. Or enter the world of the characters in any other novel. Whatever the book, the benefits of reading are numerous. It helps builds empathy, imagination, and critical thinking. These traits not only enrich personal lives but can contribute to social cohesion and innovation. Reading has also been shown, time and again, to be a strong predictor of educational attainment and academic success. Hence it can help to reduce social and economic inequalities in a country.

Book imageAgainst this backdrop, the South African Book Development Council (SABDC) is leading an initiative to promote reading, in particular among disadvantaged groups. As part of this work, they commissioned Kantar Public (at the time operating as part of TNS) to gather information on South Africans’ reading habits, and to segment the population based on those habits and willingness to read books[1]. The study applied tools developed for market research purposes, and shows how such tools can gainfully be used in the context of social research. Specifically, two market research tools were used for this study: First, a market segmentation was done to segment the population with respect to reading habits and inclination to read books. This segmentation helped answer such questions as ‘Who are the people loath to ever open the covers of a book, and how common are they in the population?’ Or, ‘Who are the people with books on their bedside table, which are gathering more dust than delight?’[2] Second, the ConversionModel was used to estimate how much free time the different segments dedicate to reading, and how much time they would ideally spend if there were no barriers to getting lost in a book. What’s the discrepancy, if any?

The study showed there is much that competes for the time and attention of South Africans. Listening to the radio, watching TV/movies, going to the mall, and hanging out with family or friends, are all more popular activities than reading. With respect to printed books, only four-in-ten households have a book in the house. South African readers spend, on average, four hours per week reading, though not necessarily books. Compared to a previous survey, the study showed that reading has dropped in terms of popularity as leisure activity: In 2006, 65% of South Africans reported having read in the past month. That figure was down to 43% a decade later.

Turning to the results of the segmentation, the study showed that almost three-quarters (73%) of the population are ‘low potential’ printed book readers, that is, this segment not only prefers to watch TV, listen to the radio, or go to the mall, but would probably prefer dusting the shelves too rather than reading. The other segments are ‘committed readers’ (14%), ‘less committed readers’ (10%), and those who are ‘open’ (3%).

The value of this analysis lies in the tailored strategies that the SABDC can develop for each of the segments, and the targeted level of effort involved. Some people may only need a bit of encouragement to pick up that book waiting on the bedside table, whereas others need to find new occasions to take up reading. For yet another group, readership starts from a blank page, so to say.

Moreover, the results from the ConversionModel showed that in South Africa there is generally a pretty small discrepancy between the actual time spent reading and the ideal amount of time dedicated to this pastime. Hence, the falling readership figures are probably not due to increasingly busy lives, but because activities and preferences have shifted. It might not have been what the SABDC wanted to hear, but nevertheless helps them inform their strategies and initiatives.

So, the SABDC is bound to stay busy for a while, working to get South Africans to pick up those books waiting to be tickled with the turn of a page. More than that, much effort is needed to get people to visit the library or bookstore in the first place. Yet the right Quoteinformation to aid the design of their programmes and initiatives makes their task easier: The study findings mean they can specifically target the groups with the greatest potential. As a result, there may be more people who will put on Sabina’s hat, wait for the train with Ifemelu, or sit down in a bistro with Nathan Zuckerman, but more importantly, step into any story or book.


[1] National survey into the reading and book reading behaviour of adult South Africans 2016. The report is available at: The study was a nationally representative household survey (n=4000).

[2] The questions may have been were worded slightly differently in the project report.

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