Nelson Mandela Foundation


Ariel Dorfman reads to the students at Bertrams Junior School

July 30, 2010 –Yesterday Ariel Dorfman spent time at Bertrams Junior School reading to young learners as part of his Mandela Day commitments.

Dorfman, who is in Johannesburg to deliver the Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the Linder Auditorium on Saturday, July 31, visited Bertrams Junior School and told the young learners the story of The Rabbits’ Rebellion.

Dorfman used the reading as an opportunity to encourage the Grade 1, 2, 3 and 4 learners to read and to start writing, especially if they have the need to express themselves, as part of his Mandela Day commitments.

Mandela Day, July 18, is a day dedicated to public service. People around the world are asked to spend just 67 minutes, symbolic of the 67 years that Nelson Mandela spent fighting for social justice and human rights, doing something to improve their local communities and starting a movement for good.

Prior to his reading, a group of learners spoke about what reading means to them. The resounding message was that “Reading is food for your brain,” and that we must all read as it “keeps our minds healthy”.

Dorfman said: “To read, someone has to write, and I am a writer. I feed my family by writing and I’ve written many books – but my favourite is The Rabbits’ Rebellion.”

The story – which has been translated into many different languages – is an allegory of oppression and censorship. The tale traces the efforts of the wolf king, who insists that rabbits don’t exist. To prove his point he removes all references to rabbits in books. To further propagate his belief, he asks a monkey photographer to take pictures and remove all traces of rabbits from the photos with a special erasing acid.

The rabbits refuse to be ignored and thwart his attempts to erase them from the photographs. Finally, the wolf king decides to build a tower too high for the rabbits to reach, but the rabbits outwit him and topple his tower, bringing him crashing to the ground. 

After his reading, Dorfman explained how the story is similar to South Africa’s experience under apartheid. He said: “The rabbits couldn’t be taken away and in your country, some time ago, there were certain men who said that other men didn’t exist. But they couldn’t be taken away either.”

He then went on to tell the children how his book has been translated into many different languages. While pointing to countries on a map and asking the children if they knew them from the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, he made the point that, through translation, books can reach many people beyond the language that is was originally written in.

“It is not enough that I write in English and Spanish – but we translate [books] so that they can go around the world,” he said. 

He then played a story-making game with the children, one he often plays with his grandchildren, where the children help to tell a story after selecting a few simple objects and animals.

The children and Dorfman told a story of a cat who wants to learn to read books. He enlists the help of his friend the bird, who takes him to the wise old elephant – “with a trunk like a vuvuzela” – to learn to read. The elephant must be freed from the zoo before he can teach the cat to read. The cat and bird, with the help of their friends, collect a magic rock which they deliver to the elephant. The elephant uses his trunk to toss the rock at the gate and smash the lock and set himself free. Only then can he teach the cat to read.

He used the game to show the children that every one of us has the ability to tell stories and that telling stories can be fun and challenging.

He said: “You can all write whatever you want. Stories come from your mind and your heart, and if you have the urge to write, you should. All stories are good and we all have stories to tell.”

During a question and answer session, a young learner asked how long Dorfman had been writing stories for.

Dorfman explained that even before he could read and write, he was telling stories. He would cut out a box to use as a stage and he would then draw animals and figures and tell stories. He said: “I learnt to write at the age of 9 and I have been writing every since. I have been writing all my life.”

He donated a copy of The Rabbits’ Rebellion to the school library and the school choir then performed a series of songs for him.

School principal Khanyi Twala said: “I would like to thank the Nelson Mandela Foundation for making this day possible. We are so excited to have them here today. We are here to promote something that is very important and something our beloved icon – Tata Mandela – is promoting: reading.”



Students from Bertrams Junior School talk about the importance of reading


Ariel Dorfman reads The Rabbits’ Rebellion to the school children


The children were enthralled by the tale of The Rabbits’ Rebellion


After the reading the children had the opportunity to ask Ariel Dorfman questions


Ariel Dorfman danced while the choir performed