PRAESA was founded in 1992 by Dr Neville Alexander – a public intellectual, historian and educationist who spent 10 years on Robben Island (1964-1974) during the struggle against apartheid. By invitation from the University of Cape Town, PRAESA was housed in the Faculty of Humanities.
After South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, PRAESA organised the country’s first national conference on primary school curriculum initiatives to bring together non-governmental organisations with government out of which a series of proposals was made to government on ways to transform the curriculum. The key idea was to promote unity, with a strong emphasis on multilingual education using African languages as well as English.
In 1995, Neville Alexander led a task group (Langtag) to develop a national language plan. Among its goals were that all South Africans should have access to all spheres of society through the development and maintenance of a level of spoken and written language appropriate for a range of contexts in all official languages; and that equitable and widespread language facilitation services should be established. The plan was submitted to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1996. Other initiatives relating to multilingual education research, language planning, policy and implementation can be read about in the series of PRAESA Occasional Papers, which Peter Plüddemann facilitated and edited between 1999 and 2003.
Carole Bloch set up and ran PRAESA’s Early Literacy Unit in 1998. She initiated a six-year interactive Xhosa-English writing process with colleague, Ntombizanele Mahobe (nee Nkence) and children and staff at Battswood Primary School in Cape Town. This development research project created a model for simultaneous early biliteracy teaching and learning, based on stories and meaning making that could be adapted by others.
The Early Literacy Unit conducted a Free Reading in Schools Project (FRISC) from 2000-2005. Carole Bloch, Xolisa Guzula, Ntombizanele Mahobe and others worked in several Cape Town schools to mentor reading for enjoyment with grade 1 and grade 4 teachers and children. The project provided information about the reading habits of not only children, but also of their teachers.
Along with the First Words in Print, TELL, the Culture of Reading Project, and the Language and Linguistic Diversity Project, PRAESA ran the Stories Across Africa Project from 2004-2009. Central co-ordination was by the Early Literacy Unit with regional sub-centres in Central, West, East, and North Africa and this pan-African collaborative project created, produced and disseminated, with publishing support, a set of 16 Little Hands books in 23 languages.
PRAESA’s materials development work has its roots in a trilingual – isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans – calendar for Western Cape teachers in 1998. We created the first set of Little Hands books in 2000 because most babies and young children had almost no ‘first’ books to explore. Our aim then was to provide young children with a range of beautifully illustrated stories developed in South Africa, and this has been followed by many publications for children over the years in African languages and English.
In 2005, PRAESA responded to a request for educational support for young people in Langa and had the opportunity to focus its passion for reading and multilingualism on setting up community-based reading clubs. In particular, the Vulindlela Reading Club in Langa has become a model for other reading clubs in the Western Cape and beyond.
In 2007, Carole Bloch formed The Little Hands Trust, together with fellow trustees and PRAESA members Neville Alexander, Ntombizanele Mahobe, Xolisa Guzula and Arabella Koopman, to motivate and nurture reading and writing among African children and their care-givers.
Neville Alexander retired as director of PRAESA in 2011 and died in August 2012.
“Under Neville’s leadership, PRAESA has been a story of inspiration, hope and persistence. All who worked with him have been motivated to help transform the linguistic and educational landscape in South Africa, and other parts of Africa, to one where democracy could truly mean ‘power to the people’, because people would be carrying out their lives and learning with dignity and understanding in languages of their choice”
– PRAESA director Carole Bloch in a tribute to Neville Alexander after his death in August 2012.
In 2011, Carole Bloch was approached by the DG Murray Trust to design a literacy campaign. This became Nal’ibali (“Here’s the story” in isiXhosa) in 2012, when she became director of PRAESA. Together with DG Murray Trust and Early Literacy Unit colleagues Ntombizanele Mahobe, Xolisa Guzula, Nadeema Jogee, and former PRAESA volunteer Malusi Ntoyapi, PRAESA initiated this national reading-for-enjoyment campaignin partnership with Times Media. The campaign’s aim was to bring adults and children together around the power of storytelling and reading. Promoting a love of reading, and the value of belonging to a community of readers through reading clubs, Nal’ibali grew rapidly over its first few years and moved off the campus and into an affiliation agreement with UCT at the end of 2013. Since then, PRAESA falls officially under The Little Hands Trust, which is a charitable non-governmental organisation.
Carole Bloch led Nal’ibali until the end of 2015. In 2106, Nal’ibali became an independent trust, The Nal’ibali Trust. Since then, it has expanded enormously in its reach across South Africa.