South Africa Literacy Crisis

The South African government has committed billions of rands to support initiatives to enable various government departments and SETAs to improve literacy levels. Despite this, it appears difficult to realise the goals of these initiatives.

Kha Ri Gude an initiative of the Department of Education launched in 2007, at a cost of R6 billion, aims to improve basic literacy in all of the 11 mother tongues. In 2006, the Department of Labour also launched a project aimed at improving literacy among unemployed and unskilled citizens. However, this programme is only conducted in English. Provincial education departments, municipalities, SETAs, the business sector and many non-government organisations, such as Project Literacy and the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans are also involved in literacy promotion.

However, there seems to be something seriously wrong with the system. Despite billions of rands being spent, the percentage of people attending these literacy classes, persevering and, most importantly, passing the examinations is appallingly low, especially in Mathematics. Great fuss is made of the few successes and the news media is used skilfully to boast about these achievements. Sadly though, no mention is made of the majority who after some time, simply give up. This problem is aggravated by the high drop-out rate of learners from primary and high schools as well as the migration of illiterate citizens from other African countries.

We are therefore facing a problem that has taken on critical proportions. We do not only struggle with illiteracy and functional literacy, but also with high levels of dysfunctional semi-literacy. The illiterate and functionally illiterate are mostly older people with no literacy skills at all or with only minimal reading and writing skills. This has a negative effect on their dignity and their ability to live a self-sustained life and acquire higher-order skills.

Dysfunctional semi-literacy is the biggest social challenge of our time. Thousands of young people have low or virtually no literacy skills at all. They also lack career skills and sound values. These young people, aged between 12 and 28, find themselves on the streets, in youth centres, in places of safety and in prisons. They are caught in a spiral of unemployment, crime, gangsterism, drug abuse and drug trafficking, prostitution, teenage pregnancy and other societal ills. While billions of rands are spent in order to eradicate illiteracy and functional illiteracy, we fail to invest adequate resources and energy to eradicate dysfunctional semi-literacy. In the meantime, these young people resort to anti-social behaviour. They are frustrated, rebellious and discouraged because they do not have the skills needed for the challenges posed by the technologically advanced global environment. This situation is a time bomb waiting to explode.

Who or what is to blame? Those who formulate policy aimed at eradicating illiteracy? The bureaucrats in charge of government and SETA literacy initiatives? The drivers of NGO initiatives? Experts developing learning material? The companies supplying the stationery? Academic institutions researching adult literacy? The training facilitators? The facilitators responsible for preparing the lessons, teaching the learners and assessing their progress? The examination boards setting the papers for pre-assessment and examinations? Those who moderate the learners’ progress, the governing bodies, farm owners, municipalities, churches, the schools providing, equipping and maintaining the learning and teaching venues?  The adult learners themselves? The agencies who help to manage the social circumstances in our townships? The lack of or availability of state funding?

The list goes on …

I argue that each of these roleplayers is, to a certain extent, responsible for the crisis.  But as the saying goes, a fish rots from its head. The policy-makers and bureaucrats must take full responsibility for the crisis. Their fragmented approach to the implementation of the Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) process and inability to launch a uniform, strategic plan lies at the heart of the crisis. Each state department implements policy to suit the agenda of the particular political head.

Image It is a concern that prominent NGOs that are service providers for different state departments and SETAs who embark on ABET programmes do not question the fragmented approach and flawed pedagogical principles to ABET. Or is it the money that gags them? These service providers receive up to R5 000 per learner and often the temptation is bigger to stuff the coffers of the organisation rather than provide quality learning and teaching in the mother tongue.  NGOs who ask tricky questions and demand the right to teach in the mother tongue are marginalised and appointed as sub-contractors only, merely to supplement the learner numbers of the larger contractors. These sub-contractors usually do the work and receive only up to R1300 per person.

What we urgently need is a thorough review of the system. This requires the formulation of a uniform, tactical plan to address the crisis and the institutionalisation of the entire ABET programme. The next step would be the development of suitable programmes for illiteracy, functional literacy and dysfunctional semi-literacy. Experts should pool their resources to develop an integrated four-year programme in the mother tongue, equivalent to Grade 9, for each of the aforementioned areas in order to teach learners literacy, life skills and career skills. It should be followed up with a two-year programme in English communication after which learners qualify for a learnership. Concurrent to this, learners can also be given access to a wide variety of introductory skills courses such as au pair, day care, crafts, repairs, gardening, building and computer training.

Furthermore, it is necessary to set up a database of illiterate persons and early school-leavers so that we can determine the literacy level per municipal area in terms of illiteracy, functional literacy and dysfunctional semi-literacy and respond appropriately. Area offices of education departments should, in co-operation with municipalities, identify areas of responsibility, appoint personnel, and contract NGOs to implement an agreed-upon programme over a period of six years. The database should be linked to an electronic system to capture learner attendance, progress and all other relevant information, such as the facilitators’ outputs.

This data could be linked to a programme rewarding learners’ and facilitators’ achievement, rather than filling the coffers of service providers. For example:  Learners who pass the national ABET level 4 examination and the English communication programme qualify for a monetary grant, a choice of learnerships, salary increases and other incentives, while facilitators receive a bonus according to the number of learners who pass the examinations. Those who are not willing to participate in the programme or who drop out could be penalised by deducting the cost of the opportunities created for self-development from the state support grants or salaries they receive. This should also apply to local councillors who exploit the political ignorance of voters while being unable to deliver. It should be an offence to not want to attend these courses or to drop out willy-nilly. However no service providers should be allowed to exploit the system or embark on a moneymaking spree. Should this happen, it would be the most vulnerable in our society who will suffer once more.

The current literacy crisis is a thorny issue and a battlefield of self-interest. However we should challenge the self-serving agendas of the big ABET service providers and inept bureaucrats who simply ignore the fundamental pedagogical principle that the teaching of basic literacy and skills should be conducted in mother tongue. The billions we intend to spend will only bear fruit if we realise that any attempt to eradicate illiteracy and build skills is a long term process which requires dedicated and unselfish educators, a well resourced infrastructure and an incentive scheme for both educator/facilitator and learners.

Source: ngopulse.org, stanford.edu, operationhope.org, imaginationwins.com, rd.com, unesco.org

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