South Africa‘s 2011 literacy rate – why is it lagging behind?

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.


4 thoughts on “South Africa‘s 2011 literacy rate – why is it lagging behind?

  1. The government needs to change the ways in which schools are structured and change its programs so that schools can become less controlled by the dominant language and culture. Children should have natural, real opportunities to interact with native speakers of the foreign language. Therefore, in order to produce realistic and natural opportunities for the development of bilingual education system in public schools, bilingual classrooms should include native speakers of both languages. Allowing children from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds to acquire each other’s language should help promote better understanding and more productive relationships between minority and majority language groups.
    In planning for instruction in bilingual education students’ attitudes towards language must be addressed. [English speaking students in bilingual settings must deal with attitudes they have acquired regarding the minority group language, as we know that there are kids who have negative attitudes towards English therefore if they will be placed in one classroom such attitudes must be addressed]. Students feeling about their native language and second languages can not be separated from their feelings about self as learners and members of society. Attitudes towards language are an important part of learning a second language and therefore should be an integral part of planning and teaching for second language learning. Students must be understood in terms of attitudes as well as cognitive and linguistic processes in order to maximise bilingual education development in any bilingual classroom. This can be achieved only by genuine and sophisticated bilingual education system within a context of strictly bilingual society.

  2. I take a strong view on the comments above by “Language activist”. I cannot understand how in a country and region with so many languages one can still be using the term “bilingual”. This is a remnant of the Apartheid era when black peole were hardly considered when it came to quality education and “bilingual” or “tweetaalig” referred to proficiency in English and Afrikaans. This exclusionary mindset denies the relevance of the other 11? official languages in South Africa alone. South Africa is not a bilingual country. We do not live in a world of either-or. We live multiple realities and have multiple languages and we need to be speaking of a multilingual society. Before Bantu Education in South Africa, many urban blacks spoke an African home language as well as English AND Afrikaans – they were already MULTIlingual! Using the term bilingual limits the framework of thought – it limits the scope of possibility. What we need to focus on is improving the quality of education in general, instead of squeezing mediocre students through a lame education system.

    Also, do not underestimate children. In a high quality education system, children are quite capable of learning multiple languages – who said it should be a question of 1st language or 2nd language? Unless a country takes specific measures to promote a particular language, as in the case of the Netherlands where the whole younger generation is proficient in English, in the context of mutual respect and curiosity as well as strategic positioning, multilingualsim will flourish.

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