In South Africa; where thousands of public schools are under-serviced and lack the basic infrastructure needed to facilitate learning, this year’s World Literacy Day theme – Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces – brings the needs of South African youth into stark focus. This is according to Matthew Sterne, Managing Director of NPO, Crew for a Cause, who says that given the correlation between poor education and the cycle of poverty, achieving true equality must begin with building a literate nation.
As part of national World Literacy Day efforts – celebrated on 8 September 2022 – Sterne extends an urgent national call for South Africans to support initiatives that promote literacy amongst learners of school-going age.
“Action needs to be taken early on, during children’s formative years, to ensure they’re put on a path that will see them flourish and escape a cycle of poverty and hardship. We’ve witnessed the transformative power of reading and writing first-hand in our work with financially disadvantaged learners. Literacy is one of the bastions of a good education; so if we start anywhere, we should start there,” says Sterne.
Several arresting statistics paint a telling picture of literacy within South African schools. According to The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), almost 80% of grade 4 learners in South Africa are unable to read in any language. In a league table of education, ranked by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Africa places 75th out of 76, with 27% of learners who have attended school for six years being unable to read.
However, as Sterne argues, to look at these statistics without considering a number of extenuating circumstances would be “short-sighted.” As he asserts, “no child can be taught to read and write in an environment that is not conducive to learning.” For this reason, this year’s theme for International Literary Day; as set by the United Nation, is particularly apt for developing nations like South Africa, which are faced with several unique challenges.
Claiming that the ‘scope is enormous,’ for those actively involved in working towards a solution, Sterne points to inequality as the root cause of the problem. This is illustrated by the latest statistics by the Department of Education, which reveals that over 18 000 public schools (out of 23 471 in total) have no library, almost 17 000 have no internet, 239 have no electricity and 37 have no sanitation facilities. These findings contrast starkly with highly favourable conditions in the country’s top-ranking, ‘wealthy’ schools.
The unfortunate reality is that illiteracy is not an isolated problem but has far-reaching consequences for the livelihoods of millions of South Africans. Research by UNICEF highlights the plight of children born into poverty, who face a range of challenges that their wealthy counterparts do not. Literacy and numeracy are among the top challenges faced by school-going youth and form the foundation of a child’s future development and learning ability.
Global humanitarian agency, Concern Worldwide, refers to education as ‘the great equalizer,’ providing access to opportunities, resources and skills that can help people to thrive. For this reason, the agency argues that quality education is the single most effective and sustainable solution to poverty. In countries like South Africa therefore, literacy; as a key component of quality education, is linked to the alleviation of greater social ills and ultimately, to solving long-standing systemic issues such as inequality.
Providing financially disadvantaged learners with quality high-school education is the main objective of Crew for a Cause, which is funded exclusively by monthly donations from a pool of members who fund bursaries for promising high-school learners.
One of these scholars is grade-11 learner, Richard Thulani* who was successfully placed at Wynberg Boys’ High School in Cape Town. Providing his perspective on the importance of literacy, he comments that: “For me personally, being literate has been very helpful in terms of education, leisure, socialising, and almost all aspects of my life.
“Without the ability to read, my everyday life would be so much more difficult, as these days we see words and writing everywhere. This would not just affect me in the present, but in the long-term too, as almost all jobs require you to be able to read. I am grateful I was taught how to read at such a young age, as for me being able to read only came with benefits.”
“In learners such as Richard, we see the tangible difference that literacy and quality education can make to the future of South African youth. Building a nation that is well-educated is in the interests of all South Africans. May this message of this year’s World Literacy Day hit home and open minds and hearts to the importance of this cause,” concludes Sterne.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the learner as per national child protection legislation.