An ongoing emergency
It was with fanfare that the previous minister of education, Kader Asmal, promised at a gala dinner in 2000 to eradicate illiteracy in South Africa within five years. Days later, the education department modified this promise to one of ‘breaking the back of illiteracy”.
It was in this context that the South African National Literacy Initiative (Sanli) was launched.
A board was put together comprising businesspeople, politicians and academics. It excluded community structures and provider organisations. A staff of about 12 was appointed as a special unit, with the national Department of Education operating outside, but alongside the adult basic education and training (Abet) sub-directorate.
Any sober consideration of the nature of the problem would have immediately made it clear that significantly addressing illiteracy was - and is - going to be extremely costly. The realisation soon dawned that the amount of money needed was not forthcoming. Attempts to attract money from the Treasury and foreign donors failed. Many donors saw the plan as impossible to achieve.
About a year later, Sanli staff had been whittled down to one person within the department, and a programme funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) but managed by Unisa, masqueraded as Sanli.
Much success has been claimed by Unisa in reaching large numbers of new and rural learners using its database of trained educators - but these figures have never been audited by an independent third party.
Then, when DFID monies from across the world were redirected to rebuilding Iraq, the literacy project in South Africa came to an abrupt end.
The government then issued tenders for local NGOs to manage the project in three provinces only - the Northern Cape, Western Cape and the Free State - in 2003. Project Literacy won the tenders for both provinces. Achievement levels were quite good, and poor, rural areas were targeted. A major challenge was the use of volunteer educators, who were paid a stipend of R300 a month.
This project wound down in November 2004 and nothing has replaced either of the initiatives.
State public adult learning centres continue to reach small numbers of people and largely cater for second-chance matriculants. Provision by NGOs and CBOs, often better at reaching the rural poor, continues to haemorrhage as donor funding for adult basic education and training has all but dried up.
Not all, however, is doom and gloom. Many sector education and training authorities have reached many learners through their training initiatives. Minister of Education Naledi Pandor has committed herself to looking at new strategies and working with civil society to beat illiteracy. In KwaZulu-Natal, Premier Sibusiso Ndebele and education MEC Ina Cronje declared ‘a state of emergency” regarding illiteracy rates. The new national skills development strategy launched recently also sets impressive targets to reach illiterate adults.
But the overall picture is shocking. Ten years into our democracy, we still have nearly one in two adults functionally illiterate.
Andrew Miller is the CEO of Project Literacy