False claims on adult literacy

The government has been accused of misleading the public for 10 years about its progress in combating adult illiteracy.

This is according to a paper by University of KwaZulu-Natal academics Professor John Aitchison and Anne Harley.

It says ‘misleading claims about [adult education] provision have become endemic” and

the Department of Education has often been guilty of ‘deliberate misinformation”.

‘Preposterous” figures ‘are now routinely bandied about by officials and inserted into the minister of education’s speeches to portray the national Department of Education’s Abet [adult basic education and training] work in a good light”, say Aitchison and Harley.

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sibusiso Ndebele warned in March that the province should declare ‘a state of emergency” over illiteracy. It is conservatively estimated that 22% of adults in KwaZulu-Natal have little or no formal schooling, leaving 1,7-million illiterate.

Ndebele was launching KwaZulu-Natal’s Year of Adult Literacy.

Asked to comment on Aitchison and Harley’s claims, the Department of Education denied any campaign of ‘deliberate misinformation”: ‘There is no red under every bed. There is no conspiracy.”

Deputy Director General of Education Cassius Lubisi conceded that some official figures could be wrong. ‘Expenditure on Abet is lower than we would want it to be,” he said. ‘Efforts to remedy this situation continue.”

In July 2001, more than a third of South Africans of 16 years and older were illiterate.

Abet experts complain that government budgeting to fight illiteracy remains paltry. Delegates at KwaZulu-Natal’s Year of Adult Literacy conference told the same story: 10 years of democracy have done little to reduce illiteracy. They said the education department had been lying for years in official documents and speeches about the number of adults enrolled in Abet courses.

They question the department’s repeated claim that it has reached 1,6-million people through adult literacy programmes since 1999 - a figure that found its way into the Treasury’s Estimates of National Expenditure last year. Provincial education departments use central government money to fund adult learning programmes.

Lubisi admitted the figure ‘refers to more than just literacy”. He said the 2003 survey, commissioned by the department, that produced this figure ‘was not satisfactory”.

A 2001 national education department document, Building an Abet System, claimed that there were 85 219 Abet trainers in South Africa. The education sector education and training authority’s 2002 annual report gave a figure of only 10 848.

The department launched the South African National Literacy Initiative (Sanli) in June 2000, and in March last year then education minister Kader Asmal claimed that ‘departmental literacy projects have reached nearly two million learners”. Lubisi conceded that Sanli ‘has not reached two million adults”. Asmal’s comment ‘needs to be viewed in the context of this being one of Asmal’s last speeches as minister of education. The reference to literacy, in this instance, should not be limited solely to the Sanli programme”. It ‘needs to be seen to refer to the number of learners reached in both the Abet and Sanli programmes during [Asmal’s] term of office”.

Experts have criticised the education department for underfunding Sanli. Lubisi said its budget for 2005/06 is R10-million, R10-million for 2006/07, and R11-million for 2007/08. In all three years, 70% of the budget will be spent on personnel.

Lubisi said his department’s information systems are two years out of date, ‘a problem we are currently addressing”.

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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