/ 4 April 2023

Illiteracy costs South Africa’s economy R119 billion, report says

(Graphic: John McCann)
More than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women. Working to change this can bring profound social and economic benefits. (Graphic: John McCann)

The World Literacy Foundation says illiteracy is costing the country’s economy R119.03 billion as about 3 million people struggle to read, write and do basic maths.

The nonprofit organisation released the Economic Cost and Social Impact of Illiteracy report on Sunday, highlighting the financial cost and social effects of 4.7% of South Africans having low-level literacy skills.

Reduced earning capacity and social costs are the main reason illiteracy is costing the economy each year, said Andrew Kay, chief executive of the foundation and co-author of the report. Early data also showed a drop in literacy rates post-pandemic.

“Illiteracy is ruining lives and is linked with an array of poor life outcomes, such as poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, crime and long-term illness,” Kay said in the report. “Literacy can change everything in the life of a young person and provide a pathway to reach their full potential.”

Researchers from the University of Pretoria completed the South African portion of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study on reading and literacy levels among grade four and five learners. They found that reading in the country’s schools has not improved and that children need more books and reading activities at home and in school to improve their literacy.

Vineet Ladia, the co-founder and director of software company Edukite, told the Mail & Guardian that the reading crisis in South Africa had worsened after the Covid-19 pandemic, with only an estimated 18% grade four learners able to read for meaning, as per the latest 2030 Reading Panel report, published this year

“Reading for meaning is a foundational skill that shapes a learner’s journey all through school and into the workforce,” he said. “Only a concerted national effort can take us to the targeted 90% literacy rate by 2030. It is an enormous challenge but a few countries have done it in the past.”

In the hope of getting children to read and help relieve the problems facing the education system, Edukite has launched an interactive e-learning app.

“The app makes learning more accessible, fun and simple to understand for this generation of learners in the digital age. The most beneficial thing about the app is that the curriculum is stored offline on the devices and is free to download on Google Play Store, so learning can continue at any time or in any place, despite load-shedding and data or wi-fi limitations,” Ladia said.

The app features a basket of subjects from grades four to 12, and also provides practical ideas and content training for teachers.

“A majority of the foundation phase teachers across the country need to be retrained to teach reading for meaning and we, as Edukite, believe that technology has to play a significant role in teacher training and quality assurance,” he said.

Another company has also become involved in trying to improve literacy and numeracy.  Funeral insurer Avbob has partnered with Oxford University Press South Africa to launch the Avbob Road to Literary Trolley Library campaign.

The campaign, which began on 1 March, saw 260 trolley libraries, valued at R50 000 and donated by the publisher, given to primary schools and education non-profit organisations. The books are in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages.

The World Literacy Summit is hosting about 500 specialists from 85 countries at Oxford University in the UK. 

Chairperson of the World Literacy Council Tony Cree said the conference this week would play a central role for the first time post-pandemic, bringing together practitioners and academics to share the latest global research and learning to address the spike in illiteracy.

“The meeting will put a spotlight on people and organisations doing exemplary and innovative work in the literacy sector around the world. We know the past 24 months have highlighted the need for communities to unite for literacy,” Cree said