Government officials and big bucks were the stars of the show on Thursday at the launch of the School Capacity and Innovation Programme in Pretoria.
"I admit that it's an overused phrase but this is an African solution for an African problem," the US ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, told the gathering.
"It is truly a public-private partnership… [and involves a] close partnership with basic education department."
The partnership is between US Agency for International Development (contributing $3-million), the basic education department, the Elma Foundation (contributing $3-million) and JP Morgan (contributing $1.5-million). The program funds local organisations that have a proven record of success and aims to build teacher effectiveness and better school management.
One in five adults in the world can't read. 84% of these people live in 35 countries and two thirds of those are women and girls, the agency told the gathering via a video about world literacy.
"Sixty-seven million children don't have access to primary school education and millions more leave school without the basically ability to read."
In their speeches both Gips and the deputy minister of basic education, Enver Surty, were careful in their defence against a common perception of the US and the West's unsuccessful muscling in on African affairs, especially when it comes to aid.
To the implementing partners in the programme – Mindset Network, siyaJabula siyaKhula and the Human Sciences Research Council – Surty said: "We do hope that you do not view these interventions as interference but rather as developmental … "
The programme was not about "taking a model from the US and imposing it on South Africa", he said.
Instead of presenting "predetermined solutions" to the literacy challenge in South Africa, Gips said, the partners "are jointly identifying pockets of innovative excellence by South Africans, for South Africans".
This is the first new programme to be announced by the Obama administration since his re-election, Gips said.
In arguably the worst year ever for education since democracy, it was amusing to see Gips attempt to congratulate the South African government on its achievements in the sector.
"I want to begin by congratulating the South African government on doing a terrific job of increasing education access across the country," he said.
He chose his words well, as we know that although the quality of basic education is questionable, as well as the department's ability to provide textbooks and furniture to schools, access to education has indeed increased.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga could not be at the event because she was in Limpopo, not because "she's looking for textbooks out there, she's just making sure that there are textbooks for next year", Surty quipped.
The programme will be rolled out in South Africa over the next three years.