Why is there a Literacy Crisis in South Africa’s schools and What’s Being Done to Combat it?

By Lucas Nowicki

In 2009, a 15 year-old girl from Khayelitsha sat riveted by the words in front of her. Time flew by and before she knew it, library time was over. Questions rushed through the teenage girl’s mind: What happened to Ntombi, the main character in her book? Did she sleep with the bad boy drug dealer? Did she manage to lift her family out of the small shack in Khayelitsha through her singing? Never before had she felt so captivated by words on a page. She approached her English teacher, who had been used her as a guinea pig for a project that had been forming in the teacher’s mind.
The girl shows the book to her teacher, points to an open page and says: “This is our life, miss.”

The team from Fundza literacy
7 years later, Dorothy Dyer is one of the founders of Fundza, an organisation based in Cape Town. Fundza was founded in 2011 by a collective of women who were passionate about literacy and able to imagine the potential impact it could have in areas in which education can be a constant struggle. It aims at getting children in townships and rural areas to read for pleasure, developing their English literacy skills and thereby improving their comprehension of all subjects taught in English. Fundza publishes books written by South African authors which young people from rural areas and townships can identify with, and distributes these books to local schools and libraries. They also run workshops encouraging young people to write, about their lives and personal stories – to express themselves in whatever way they feel.

South Africa has one of the worst literacy rates in the world as well as the continent. Even African countries with a far lower gross yearly income have better literacy rates. The reason for this, suggested by Fundza, is the perception of books and reading in townships and rural areas: something only done in school or as for homework, a chore to be completed in the interests of getting a matric. There is also the problem of relatability. The majority of setwork in South African schools is Western literature that deals with Western culture and characters in entirely unfamiliar situations. How are South African children supposed to identify with, or be intrigued by, such alien lives?

“When I was an English teacher we had some lovely books in our library, but during  the weekly reading periods many students checked their cellphones under the desk rather than enjoying a book, with them having mainly white protagonists with lives far removed from that of my students, and in many cases the language was far too sophisticated,” says Dorothy, a supervisor at the Leap Science and Maths School.

In the Leap library in Pinelands, Cape Town, the kids were captivated by one series of books, written to inspire African American kids to read. “This series is about growing up with gangs and violence, and the relationships between young black teens,” says Dorothy.

After Dorothy commissioned a local author to write a novel exploring a township milieu, the feedback she got motivated her to leave her job as an English teacher and focus her life on improving the education of underprivileged youths through the power of literacy.

“By reading these stories I’ve improved my comprehension, vocabulary, associative memory and imagination, to name just a few things. Some of the stories are touching; they leave you with a humbling experience,” says Mankgane Masenya, a Khayelitsha student whom Funza has worked with.

It is important to acknowledge the root cause of the literacy problem in South Africa. To do this we need to look back on apartheid. The Bantu Education Act and use of black people for unskilled labour lead to a huge level of illiteracy among middle aged black workers. These workers are now parents and their children are our newest generation. However, because of the historical disadvantages these parents have never been exposed to the wonders of reading, and as a result they don’t expose their children. Also, reading requires resources, and in South Africa (according to Stats SA) over 54% of the population is living under the poverty line. These areas don’t have libraries and their schools are not supplied with reading materials. Children learn to read if they do not have access to books.

“The move from being taught in your home language in grade 3 to English in grade 4 is also hugely problematic” says Dorothy. In grade 4, 58% of South African learners can’t read for meaning (understand what is being read). In grade 4, learners are suddenly expected be able to read and be taught in English after learning in their home language previously. According to Stats SA, 50% of kids who enter grade 1 will drop out before Matric.

Literacy is important in our education crises, because there is no option to write government NSC’s in any African languages, because according to the government regulations: Matric exams must be written in English, so to be able to pass Matric being literate is a necessity that is often not a reality.

The government is often quick to be blamed for the crisis we are in. “I think that many people in the education department are really trying to do positive work. Wrong decisions have been made on the way,there are such huge challenges that it doesn’t seem realistic to expect the government to fix things on their own. What is important is that the government and NGOs work together, to maximise on results, and it seems that the government is recognising this and developing good relationships with NGOs such as us” says Dorothy.

Literacy is key in improving our education crisis, to establish a local South African based teen reading culture is a way to move forward. Through pioneering idea’s and platforms – such as the rise of mobi-reading; teenagers getting access to Fundza’s and other local publishers through their cell phones, and the government working with NGO’s such as Fundza to collectively produce and distribute local books to impoverished areas, creating indigenous reading culture that gives us hope for the future.

“I have learned many things from the stories, such as not allowing my past to define who i am, always work hard towards reaching my goals, to be the change that i want to see in my community” says a young Skekete from Masiphumelele, a township in Cape Town.

However much is to be done – the government needs to invest and alongside organisations such as Fundza to improve the teaching of English in rural and underprivileged areas. Through the distribution of relevant novels and making sure that schools have the literary resources such as libraries to create a culture of literacy – because education is a way to uplift the huge amount of South Africans living in poverty. In a time where all eyes are focused on the political and economic landscape of South Africa, let us not forget about the youths who struggle against all odds to achieve their dreams of escaping destructive cycle of poverty and illiteracy.


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