Between 2009 and 2010, 18 percent of South Africa’s government budget was invested in public education. However, the latest United Nation’s Human Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report shows that South Africa has an adult literacy rate of just 89 percent, says Shantalie Hewavisenti.


his is significantly lower than other emerging economies; for instance, Chile’s education expenditure also amounts to 18 percent of total government spending but adult literacy is much higher at 98.6 percent and Lithuania only invests 13 percent of their national budget on education and can boast a literacy rate of 99.7 percent. Evidently, South Africa’s investment in education is not yielding the desired results. To address this problem effectively, we need to start by

understanding the roots of this literacy crisis and then equipping relevant stakeholders to take the necessary action.

South Africa’s literacy lag

The factor that sets South Africa apart from other emerging economies and is commonly cited as contributing to poor education levels is our apartheid history. Simply ploughing money into the education system is insufficient to counteract decades of insufficient teacher training, lack of supplementary materials

in indigenous languages, the absence of literary resources, and a class structure that sees a large sector of the population trapped in poverty. That being said, it has been 18 years since the end of apartheid and there are countries that have been able to raise educational standards in a short space of time with fewer resources, like Cuba. The post-Apartheid government’s policy decisions have also had a negative impact of the development of a culture of reading. The general approach that was fostered by the African National Congress (ANC) after Apartheid has been market driven. As a result of policies like Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), which are primarily focused on economic development, South Africa has become one of the world’s most unequal societies. This has had a knock-on effect on educational standards as township communities are those that are starved of literary resources and opportunities to enjoy a culture of reading. Literacy is the key to a learner mastering the rest of the school curriculum, but unfortunately a culture of reading is not promoted within South Africa. If a child’s reading competency is poor this has a knock-on effect on their writing skills and those of comprehension.





Access to literature is essential to improved literacy rates. Currently, only 21 percent of South Africa’s 24 793 public schools have libraries and in many cases these libraries are not utilised to their full capacity. This is exacerbated as more than 50 percent of families have no books in their homes so children, especially those in underprivileged communities, are not exposed to recreational reading. Furthermore, a scarcity of indigenous language books mean those children do not have the opportunity to read literature in the language they are most familiar with.

Recommendations for teachers and parents

As things stand, conditions are not of adequate standards to allow teachers to fulfil the duty effectively. Class sizes are large and in public schools the leaner-educator ratio is high. Our teachers’ jobs are made more difficult by insufficient training opportunities and lack of instructional material. Teachers’ must understand the integral role they play in moulding future generations and push higher bodies to provide them with increased professional support. The relationship between learners and their teachers is pivotal. Teachers play an important role, not only conveying the value of reading but also the joy of it. However, they need to realise that reading is not a skill that a child will acquire over time but something that must actively be taught and practised by the child. Teachers need to acknowledge that creating

a solid literacy foundation amongst their learners will make teaching in other areas of curriculum much easier. Flexibility must be employed in teaching to allow for different learning styles. Educators should experiment with teaching methods like shared reading, sight words, phonetics and read-aloud sessions. Children need to be encouraged to read for pleasure and teachers should set aside half an hour each day for learners to dedicate to reading for enjoyment. The development of a culture of reading is not confined to the classroom. Parents and local communities can also support children with their reading. Parents should take an interest in their child’s education as literacy competency really does have an impact on future employment prospects. The learning process can be continued within the home through the promotion of reading for pleasure rather the watching television. Parents can also visit libraries with their children and – when they can afford it – buy books rather than toys. Beyond the home, the wider community can also contribute to improving literacy amongst youth by organising book clubs that allow learners to pool their resources and come together to share a love of literature. As we are currently within UNESCO’s Literacy Decade – 2003 to 2013 – the timing is perfect and the momentum is in place for South Africa to start making significant inroads into transforming and expanding our reading culture and subsequently improving literacy rates. We can no longer justify the country’s poor educational standards as a legacy of apartheid. It is now time for all stakeholders to begin taking it upon themselves to address the literacy crisis and take action to change attitudes and approaches to reading, not just for our own benefit but for that of future generations.


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