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Opinion: Unless We Tackle The Issue Of Illiteracy In South Africa, We Face A Grim Future

  • 5 min read

According to StatsSA, the official unemployment rate for South Africa sits at a whopping 34.4%. That’s 7.8 million jobless people. This report by StatsSA also shows that the number of discouraged work-seekers is now 186 000. StatsSA notes that the unemployment rate among youth is the highest it’s ever been and against the backdrop of increasing poverty levels, South Africa’s youth are feeling discouraged.

Now add to this the fact that the Human Development Index (HDI) by the UN indicates that 18.9% of South Africans (11 million people) live on less than R28 per day. Of these 11 million people, 4 million live in multidimensional poverty. Multidimensional poverty means that not only do they have little money, but they also have bad health, poor access to good healthcare or no healthcare access at all, no access to clean water, no housing opportunities and possibly suffer from malnutrition.

It is a well-known fact that a proven solution to both unemployment and poverty is education and literacy. However, South Africa is also facing a unique, larger issue of illiteracy. In 2019, it was reported that 4.4 million South African adults are illiterate; could not read. Despite improvements over the last decade, this is still an alarming fact.

South African children have also been set back by at least a year when it comes to education as a result of COVID-19,  says UNICEF. The United Nations Children’s Fund also notes that over the last year and a bit, well over half a million children have dropped out of schools across the country. Those who are still at school have had to adapt to a totally new learning environment with no transition period.

While middle-class and better-supported kids could do online learning, those in poorer areas and from schools who were already struggling even before the pandemic, found themselves at an even further disadvantage, as they had little to no internet access to do online learning. Furthermore, access to technological equipment which would aid online learning is lacking among this group of disadvantaged kids. Consequently, these schools have lots of catching up to do, to make up for time lost during the peak of the pandemic, needing increased support to turn their dire situation around.

Albeit a grim picture currently, there are however organizations working hard to turn this picture around. By providing improved education for young people, thus tackling the issue at its root, the nation can begin to close the gap on these societal issues.

The ongoing work done by South Africa’s largest community loyalty programme, MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet, is one such example where they are working tirelessly with like-minded reputable organisations to improve SA’s literacy rate. They have collaborated with Builders to provide learners with new classrooms to facilitate learning. The latest project is three Grade RR classrooms for non-profit school, Christel House, worth over R1.7 million.

In a time where many are struggling to make ends meet, given the current economic climate, these new classrooms will have a lasting impact on the futures of young children living on the Cape Flats. Adri Marais, Chief Executive Officer of Christel House explains how the new classrooms will benefit the school.

“Christel House turns 20 this year and adding this crucial phase to our Early Childhood Development program has long been a dream for us. These top-quality Grade RR classrooms are putting an additional 60 students per year on a pathway out of poverty,” says Marais.

Many disadvantaged learners are also being consistently supported through Relate and Shine Literacy. Working in partnership with teachers, volunteers and parents, Shine Literacy’s award-winning, evidence-based programmes provide effective and sustained support to children as they learn to read and write, helping to foster a life-long love of books and learning. Close to R500 000 has been raised in support of this initiative through the Relate trust. Founder and CEO of Relate, Lauren Gillis, believes that consistency and perseverance in providing improved education and access to learning will go a long way to helping many South Africans with literacy issues.

“Education and literacy are imperative to our success as a country, and when facing facts like 12% of adult South Africans not being able to read and write, we have to assess our role in changing this. Partnering with organizations such as Shine Literacy, who make tangible differences in the lives of less fortunate children is our core focus.”

Readucate is another non-profit education and literacy orginisation that strives to fight illiteracy on all levels and by all means available. Founder of the Readucate Trust, Edna Freikel, has dedicated her life to training teachers, parents and grandparents who wish to help their children improve their literacy skills. “Millions are illiterate so only live half lives, with consequent tragedies very often. Anyone who can read can help alleviate this worldwide tragedy”, says Freinkel. She continues working in her 80s as she says she cannot stop knowing that people are not able to read.

It’s important for South Africans to remember that the work to eradicate illiteracy won’t end soon. The work done as a united front is what will improve our education system. General Manager of MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet, Pieter Twine, says that he’s seen major impact being made through ordinary South Africans, and that our work is far from done.

“All the work we do is in order to make a tangible difference in the lives of learners who need it. Another one of the initiatives we are involved in is a collaboration with Book Dash, and so far we have donated over 220 000 books to school children.”

“We need to equip young children and the youth with the important skills and tools needed to thrive in life. They are our future and we need to ensure that they have the strongest foundation possible to ensure a bright future for South Africa,” Twine concludes.