The threat posed by adult illiteracy is a threat to democracy itself.
As the effects of the global crisis strike deeper into the South African economy, deficit theorists and social pathologists are quick to remind us that our citizens lack the requisite educational and skills levels required to rescue and restore our struggling economy.
These social pathologists and their counterparts in government want us all to believe that we are only able to return our economy to be a worthy competitor in the new knowledge-based economy if our educational institutions, irrespective of their conditions, can provide students with high-level skills. Higher educational and skills levels, we are told, are integral to an economic growth of 7% which is now required to create the necessary jobs in an economy that has shed close to one million jobs in the past year.
Education, learning and literacy are now essentially in the service of the market and their primary purpose is to serve the skills deemed necessary in the labour market. Education and learning are to be undertaken in pursuit of skills development valued by the labour market and to prepare people to become compliant, flexible workers and consumers. This discourse and language has become dominant in speeches by government officials, economists and business leaders and is uncritically accepted by most people as an apolitical truth.
In spite of the threat of illiteracy to the economic order the South African public has been silent when it comes to one of the most critical educational subsectors of South African society: adult basic education and training (Abet).
For instance, during the recent public sector strike that shut down teaching and learning in many schools in previously disadvantaged communities, no one considered the impact of the strike on the 250 000 adults enrolled at public adult learning centres across the country. Neither have we heard any public outcry about the poor annual pass rate in Abet national examinations, nor the recent allegations of mismanagement by the Adult Learning Network and the misappropriation of funds destined for the poor.
Yet there are 14-million South African adults with less than 10 years of schooling, whose education and training are meant to contribute to the socioeconomic development of this country. Public participation in and attention to Abet have become imperative for a number of reasons.
First, the participation rate in Abet is estimated at 2%: many adults who could benefit from Abet experience multiple deterrents associated with poverty. Second, the conditions in learning centres mirror those of the poor public schools that house these centres, which are plagued by numerous problems including a lack of resources. Third, the quality of Abet programmes has been questioned and remains largely alien to the immediate realities and needs of adults, areas that the department of education has failed to address in spite of promises to do so. The formalisation of Abet now produces the curriculum categories of formal schooling and is nothing more than simply “school for adults”.
Fourth, many workers in companies are still excluded from skills development and progression into vocational education and training. Adult basic education provided by companies remains predominantly “literacy in English”, with scant opportunities for skills training—a demand that trade unions continue to make. Abet in the workplace is also being used as a barrier to further skills training and advancement.
Fifth, adult education units at universities have been significantly reduced in the past decade. Most adult education departments at universities have been closed or reduced to programmes in education faculties.
Sixth, many civil society organisations with many years of experience in Abet have disappeared and have made way for private “service providers” whose main interest in Abet is profit and who often present quick-fix solutions. Many of the providers operate within the Seta industry, in which a good understanding of adult education does not exist and in which quality assurance mechanisms to evaluate programmes are absent or inadequate.
Seventh, workers without 10 years of education are most vulnerable to unemployment. Only 8% of those without 10 years of schooling find themselves in formal employment as companies choose to employ workers with higher levels of education. And eighth, the right to basic education has been denied to adults a number of times when learning centres have been closed as a result of poor financial planning by provincial departments of education.
One of the consequences of ignoring the multidimensional role of Abet is visible in the way the education department has dealt with the Kha Ri Gude Campaign. The campaign, which makes remarkable claims in terms of the numbers of learners reached, has been reduced to a bean-counting exercise by government to show that it has gone a long way to meet some of the targets set in the millennium development goals.
However, most important is the need to realise that adult illiteracy threatens not only the economic order but the very fabric of our democracy.
Abet remains essential education aimed at supporting adults in making informed judgments and decisions about everyday life situations and participating in sociopolitical processes. While education for children takes many years to translate into roles and responsibilities that citizens have to fulfil, the effects of adult education are more immediate in addressing social, community, political and economic issues.
The South African public should therefore recognise the relationship between Abet and the high infant mortality rate, increase in poverty, massive unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy among children, poor health, and HIV and Aids.
All these issues continue to exist and are reproduced as part of the failure of social policies that are meant to address them. Though there is no direct causal relationship between poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, many illiterate adults are likely to be unemployed and experience an increase in poverty while struggling to satisfy a number of basic human rights.
With the establishment of the new department of higher education and training (DHET), which has taken on responsibility for Abet, there is an opportunity to reinvent the Abet system as one that embraces adult education as integral to critical citizenship and democracy.
Abet should no longer be regarded as remedial or second-chance education for the poor, but rather as valid and important in its own right and in need of continued public and social support to make it available to all. Abet needs to be valued for the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes it encourages for social, personal, community and economic development.
Reinventing Abet requires serious dialogue with, and a reversal of, the narrow, one-dimensional and instrumentalist approach that Abet has come to assume. Current rhetoric in government documents, such as the National Skills Development Strategy III, suggests a reinforcement of the instrumentalist tradition that emphasises the usefulness of Abet within the labour market.
This is precisely the route that the new DHET should avoid because it fails to address the broader transformational role that Abet could play as a vehicle towards building critical citizenship and substantive democracy.
Expanding and reinforcing the functional approach to Abet will simply perpetuate the exclusion of millions of able-bodied adults from an economy that favours those with higher levels of education. There are many socioeconomic and political issues that require the active participation and engagement of the adult population and which the instrumentalist tradition of education is unable to address.
Forms of adult education linked to a vision of a just and peaceful society have a much better long-term effect than responding to the ever-changing needs of the economy.
A number of civil society organisations, including the trade union movement, progressive social movements and the Public Participation in Education Network, provided constructive and valuable arguments in favour of education for the public good and the role that education still needs to play in building a just society. It is therefore absolutely necessary that the current interventions to transform the education system are not simply an attempt that abandons substantial reforms and embraces a failed neoliberal project, but rather an intervention that embraces the possibility of education as an emancipatory project.
Ivor Baatjes is a senior researcher at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation in the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty