By Lorato Trok

If you ask black South Africans who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and possibly the 90s what their favourite South African children’s book is when they were growing up, they will probably tell you about their favourite African folktale that their mothers or grandmothers used to tell them. We simply did not have children’s books that resonated with us, nor with our lives in the townships and rural areas. No one wrote books for us or about us, unless black children were props in a story where their voices nor humanity did not matter.

Niki Daly‘s pen and crayons changed all that in post-apartheid South Africa. If anyone decolonised children’s literature in South Africa before it was even a thing, it was Niki Daly. His writing and illustrations affirmed the African child in a way that positioned them as clever, curious, feisty and inquisitive, as Dr Xolisa Guzula has described him in her tribute. When a new generation of black South African children’s authors and illustrators started making their mark in a white dominated field, how ironic that they looked to the writing and illustration work of Niki Daly, a white South African man who had so mastered the art of writing about black children? Dr Xolisa Guzula, academic, author and translator of children’s books poignantly says this about Niki:

“Through Niki’s books, I got mentored in ways of seeing the child as being capable and always pushing boundaries as part of their learning and development. I could relate to his themes of family bonds and nurturing that he created through his Jamela and Thoko series books.”

Niki did not only appreciate the African culture, he celebrated it. He wore his South African-ness in his words and through his ink. His greatest joy was seeing his books translated into African languages and being accessible to all South African children. He left us a treasure trove of beautiful stories, now it is up to all of us – teachers, publishers, parents, corporate South Africa and the government through public and school libraries, to take the mantle and ensure that Niki’s books and other South African children’s publications are accessible to children. Our country is facing a literacy and education crisis. Our foundation phase children are not able to read comprehensively. Education and early literacy experts, throughout their years of research have always pointed out to one missing link in getting our literacy challenges right: children need to be introduced to reading as fun in their home languages, even before they could start formal schooling. They need to have as much time enjoying fiction books just as much as they focus on their textbooks and schoolwork.

The post-apartheid generation of all South African children can proudly share with their peers their favourite South African children’ story books that Niki gifted them. Who can forget the mesmerisingly beautiful illustrations in Fly Eagle Fly? The classic South African picture book, Not so Fast Songololo celebrated the nurturing relationship between a grandmother and a child, a story so rooted in the African culture of every family’s favourite matriarch, the grandmother.

At Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, Niki Daly was a beacon and a light that shone so bright and brought a lot of joy to children and adults alike to children across the nation. We extend sincere condolences to his family, friends and writing family. May he rest peacefully and may all children have access in his books in whatever language they need.