Major plans to combat illiteracy

Khanyi Magubane

“Literacy is a strong weapon through which Africa could claim its rightful place among the continents of the globe. It is therefore imperative that every child in Africa must learn to read and write. African leaders and experts must commit themselves to making this happen.” These are the words of Professor Kader Asmal, then South Africa’s minister of education, at the launch of the country’s Readathon in 2001.

As Asmal’s words show, illiteracy is a priority problem in South Africa. The latest government statistics indicate that some 4,7 million people are totally illiterate (never attended school) and another 4,9 million adults are functionally illiterate (left school before Grade 7). Illiteracy is highest in KwaZulu-Natal (where those most affected are speakers of isiZulu), the Eastern Cape (for isiXhosa speakers) and Limpopo (speakers of sePedi).

In a bid to increase the culture of reading in South Africa, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) has committed R180 million to the upgrading of library services and the buying of books.

All nine provinces in the country have been allocated a budget from these funds, according to their needs. Before allocating the funds, the DAC conducted an assessment study to investigate and establish the needs of each province.

Dr Graham Dominy, national archivist at DAC, says that the study was done in three phases. “The Department of Arts and Culture commissioned KPMG and Jacaranda Intellectual Properties to deliver three reports and recommendations in relation to community libraries.

“The first was to give us an indication of immediate priorities that the funds should be spent on in the 2007 – 2008 financial year and this was done in conjunction with the nine provinces. The second was to give a detailed evaluation of the status quo in the public and community library sector across the country – this gave us the data to use for planning the longer-term project; and the third was to advise on the future financial model and the setting of national norms and standards.”

The investigation found that the province with the greatest need was the Northern Cape and as such, the province received the biggest portion of the budget, R24 million. So far 27.7 percent of this budget has already been spent.

The project started when Arts and Culture minister Dr Pallo Jordan announced at a consultative workshop between the DAC and the National Council for Library and Information Services Council in July 2006 that his department planned to breathe new life into the country’s libraries.

At the workshop, Jordan announced that the National Treasury had allocated an amount in excess of R1 billion to the department for revitalising the public and community libraries of South Africa. “I understand that that has generated great excitement in the LIS [library and information services] community – understandably so,” he said.

Andrew Miller, CEO of Project Literacy, says that while he is excited about the venture taken by the DAC, he has some concerns. “Libraries in South Africa traditionally don’t cater for the black South African reader, period. They have very few books written in indigenous languages. Most of the books cater for the white middle class.” He says the lack of relevant material is problematic, as newly literate black adults have no incentive to make use of libraries.

Project Literacy, a 30-year-old non-profit organisation, delivers a wide range of adult basic education and training programmes through teaching centres, educator training and curriculum development and community outreach. The organisation has recently started a project entitled “Run Home to Read”.

“We’ve been running this project in the Limpopo province, which introduces nursery school children and their parents to reading techniques. We are hoping that this will improve their performance at school. We are hoping that will also make their semi- literate parents more involved in their children’s school life, as they will be able to read with them,” says Miller.

The scope of need in terms of libraries and books in South Africa is vast. Miller notes, interestingly, that while running their literacy project in Limpopo, they encountered locals in deep rural areas who had never even heard of a library, and were surprised to learn that there are places where they could go and read books. He says his organisation is now working at developing that sector from the illiteracy stage to basic literacy. “We are working closely with community members who are keen on the library projects. We’ve also found that these communities are eager to learn to read in their indigenous language.”

His sentiments are echoed by Dominy. “As a developmental state we have to transform the library sector from serving the leisure time reading needs of the formerly privileged middle classes into a sector that will uplift communities and especially the young. This means a concentration on children’s books, indigenous language material, to create a market for publishing in indigenous languages, educational support material and information and communication technology so that the youth can access the world of knowledge through the Internet.”

The daily newspaper Daily Sun is credited by Project Literacy as one of the biggest advancers of reading in South Africa, especially amongst the country’s lower- to middle-income groups. This is so, says Miller, because even when an illiterate adult learns how to read, it’s imperative that they continue reading. “It’s not difficult to get adults to get start reading, but the problem is that there really isn’t much to read. The challenge is to keep newly literate adults reading; otherwise, they lose their skills.”

To this end, New Readers Publishers, an initiative of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has made strides in publishing books specifically aimed at newly literate adults. They have adult-orientated fiction in a range of languages, and also cater for different language speakers. The aim of the project is to contribute to an increase in adult literacy and the promotion of a reading culture.

The Department of Education also has big plans for combating illiteracy in South Africa. Discussions in Parliament are at an advanced stage in approving the department’s R5 billion plan to eradicate illiteracy in the country. The plan is now before parliamentary review, and the Department of Education intends to make announcements on the details once it has been approved.

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