PRAESA was founded in 1992 by Dr Neville Alexander – a public intellectual, historian and educationist who spent 10 years on Robben Island between 1964 and 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-government 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.

Carole Bloch set up and ran PRAESA’s Early Literacy Unit in 1998, initiating a six-year interactive Xhosa-English writing process with children at Battswood Primary School in Cape Town. This development research project created a model for early biliteracy teaching and learning that could be adapted by others.

In PRAESA’s Free Reading in Schools Project (FRISC), from 2000-2005, researchers worked in several Cape Town schools to mentor reading for enjoyment with grade 1 and grade 4 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 a Stories Across Africa Project from 2004-2009. Central co-ordination was by the PRAESA Early Literacy Unit with regional sub-centres in each of 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.

Our 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 when we realised most babies and tiny 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 2012 PRAESA initiated a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign called Nal’ibali, in partnership with Times Media, and supported by the DG Murray Trust.

“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.