Illiteracy is part of a ticking time bomb

The problem with South Africa's education system is that it is mired in the politics of language and class. (Madelene Cronje/ M&G)

The problem with South Africa's education system is that it is mired in the politics of language and class. (Madelene Cronje/ M&G)

Last week a report from two years ago came up again on my timeline. The report stated that almost 80% of South Africa’s 10-year-olds cannot read for basic meaning in any national language. And last week, as when the report first came out, those who engaged with the story were, like a certain politician, shocked.

I never fail to be bemused by how often some of my fellow citizens do not question that we keep doing things the same way yet expect different results.
About seven years ago I was commissioned to write about education in South Africa. As part of my research, I got to visit several primary and high schools in seven provinces. I also got to chat with a friend’s sister in North West who was in grade 10 but could not spell the word “dictionary”.

READ MORE: Schooling alone won’t fix illiteracy

I mentioned in that article that I believed that the problem with our education system was that it was mired in the politics of language and class (the latter often tied to race).

South African education appears to celebrate all 11 official languages and yet it does not. Some languages are considered more superior to others. Although there is much talk about the importance of mother-tongue usage when children are young, it sadly isn’t maintained all the way through their education.

Until recently, English and Afrikaans were the major languages of instruction for matric and at university level, putting the other nine languages at a distinct disadvantage. I have often wondered whether that is because our languages have failed to move with the times or because we have never bothered to invest much time updating them. How can we talk of mother-language instruction and the importance of it when we haven’t found a way to translate the word “algebra”, for instance? And it’s not an impossible thing to do. Swahili has shown us how it can be done.

Every year academics, journalists and opinion makers in that language meet and create new words to be on par with new inventions and terms, etcetera. In this way, Swahili is a living, breathing language with its own words for cellphones, applications and, I suspect, even for different forms of social media.

The privileging of English in schools is closely tied up with the politics of class.

A student in a government school in some village or township with 60 students and no library facilities, computer or science laboratory, and teachers who attend classes whenever they choose to, cannot begin to compete with a better-equipped school in the suburbs. There are those who have managed to pass against these odds — our newspapers laud them every matric season for pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and doing the unexpected. It is, however, immensely unfortunate that instead of levelling the quality of education across the board so that everyone has more or less an equal starting point, we should celebrate the exceptions among the many we fail. And it doesn’t help that the people who allow these educational policies to thrive will not allow their children or grandchildren to attend the same schools that they are okay with poorer students attending.

One cannot but think there is almost a desire by those in charge of our education to keep the majority of the populace illiterate. I am not sure whether the assumption behind this is so that we will not question. If this is the reason, the powers-that-be may be in for a surprise. The unemployment rate, corruption by the elites, unfair distribution of wealth and the frustration at the cost of living are all powder kegs waiting to explode. And there is nothing more dangerous than an explosion by people who have nothing to lose.

Instead of being shocked, it will serve us and our country well to treat illiteracy with the urgency that it deserves, whether it’s creating reading clubs using our unemployed but educated graduates or ensuring every school has a library with books.

My friend’s sister marginally passed matric and is now a single mother of two. In a country with almost a third of the population unemployed, she is lucky to have a job as a security guard at a supermarket. But I wonder: will she be able to help her children with their reading and writing since she seemed to struggle herself when I met her those many years ago?

And if she can somehow help, will she have sufficient time to do so while struggling for survival and ensuring her children are fed and clothed?

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