OPINION | Yanga Malotana: Political will needed to fix literacy levels, affected by the pandemic

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Learners at St Patrick’s Primary School in Humansdorp form part of the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm’s literacy programme aimed at helping local primary school learners to achieve competency at Grade 4 international reading and spelling levels.                      Photo: SUPPLIED
Learners at St Patrick’s Primary School in Humansdorp form part of the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm’s literacy programme aimed at helping local primary school learners to achieve competency at Grade 4 international reading and spelling levels. Photo: SUPPLIED

Despite gains made in improving literacy, Covid-19 has disrupted the learning of children, young people and adults at an unprecedented scale, writes Yanga Malotana.


Since 1967, International Literacy Day (ILD) celebrations have taken place annually to show the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. According to UNESCO, ILD aims to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.

IDL 2021 will be celebrated under the theme: "Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide".

Literacy is a cause for celebration since there are now close to four billion literate people in the world. However, literacy for all?children, youth and adults?is still an unaccomplished goal and an ever-moving target.

According to data released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, literacy rates for adults and youth continue to rise. Young women aged 15 to 24 are making the strongest gains but still lag behind young men. In 2011, 87% of female youth had basic literacy skills, compared to 92% of males. Overall, more than half of countries with data have youth literacy rates of 95% or higher.

Disrupted learning

Despite these gains, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the learning of children, young people and adults at an unprecedented scale. Youth and adult literacy were absent in many initial national response plans, while numerous literacy programmes have been forced to halt their usual modes of operation. It has also magnified the pre-existing inequalities in access to meaningful literacy learning opportunities, disproportionally affecting 774 million non-literate young people and adults (15 years and older). Among youth, 123 million are illiterate, of which 76 million are female. Even though the size of the global illiterate population is shrinking, the female proportion has remained virtually steady at 63% to 64%.

READ | Pandemic worsening childhood literacy rates

A combination of ambitious goals, insufficient and parallel efforts, inadequate resources and strategies, and continued underestimation of the magnitude and complexity of the task accounts for this unmet goal. Lessons learnt over recent decades show that meeting the goal of universal literacy calls not only for more effective efforts but also for renewed political will and for doing things differently at all levels?locally, nationally and internationally.

In South Africa, the government launched the Kha Ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign in February 2008.

The campaign intended to enable 4.7 million adults (older than 15 years) to become literate and numerate in one of the 11 official languages. The campaign was initiated and managed by the Department of Education. Kha Ri Gude has aimed to deliver across all nine provinces.

Setback 

The South African government is still working to ensure the continuation of the campaign despite the setback caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In light of the 2021 theme, the South African government is faced with the challenge of achieving literacy through providing basic education, while ensuring that basic education is accommodated with digital literacy.

Covid-19 has shown us the importance of digital literacy and technology. Therefore, all Adult Basic Education and Training Programmes (ABET) like Kha Ri Gude need to reflect UNESCO’s broad understanding of literacy which goes beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills.

South Africa’s ABET curricula need to interpret literacy as 'a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world'. This means that computer literacy, including the use of the internet, needs to be part and parcel of ABET programmes. 

- Yanga Malotana, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.

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