According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report for 2011, South Africa has a literacy rate of 88% and sits at number 113 in world literacy rankings. Not bad, if you don’t look at the countries that are still ahead of South Africa.
Despite Zimbabwe’s economic problems, it has a literacy rate of 91.9% and it is number 95 in the world. Despite great advances towards better education, South Africa lags behind Zimbabwe, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho and Libya. Botswana has a literacy rate of 77.7% while Mali and South Sudan are at the bottom of the list of 183 countries with 26.2% and 27% respectively.
The literacy rate is not a measurement of high level training and education. It simply measures the percentage of people with the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about the written word.
How did these countries achieve high literacy rates in Africa?
Soon after independence, Zimbabwe introduced free basic education. Students at university were paid allowances to sustain themselves while at university. This is what caused the significant gains in education that has kept the country’s literacy rate growing, even after having suffered from decade long economic problems.
The government of Equatorial Guinea does not invest much of its ‘oil dollars’ in education. Despite this, education is free and compulsory until the age of 14 which means that this country continues to achieve high levels of literacy. The country has also fought harder to improve the literacy of women and eliminate their marginalisation. The result has been a high literacy rate and a high level of parity between the literacy of men and women.
Where is South Africa going wrong?
South Africa is the continent’s biggest and most advanced economy but its literacy rate still lags behind some of Africa’s troubled economies. It has invested billions of rands in education but it still fails to achieve the expected result. It has a low rate of university attendance. Its school and university standards are too low with the exceptions of a few that strive to meet international standards. Furthermore, university fees are too high for the poor majority. Only one in six students gets to university and a third of those drop out within a year.
Three million South Africans aged 18-24, more than half the total, are outside education, training or employment. 70% of South Africans have no qualifications at all. 17% of Matric graduates are likely to get a job within a year of leaving school and 60% will still be jobless after 5 years. Officially, 25% of South Africans are unemployed and actual unemployment is projected to be much higher than that.
South Africa’s Basic Education Minister is being taken to court over poor standards at state schools. About 85% of state schools in South Africa have been classified by the government as failing. Ms Angie Motsheka, the Basic Education Minister, has already promised reforms and investment in infrastructure, but it is a mammoth task for a government that has invested millions of rands in education without achieving the intended results.
It is high time that South Africa realises it is not a lot of money that changes the literacy rate, its how and where you invest that money.