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Reading for Meaning in our Lifetime


By Zimpande Kawanu.

Bereft of the ability to read and write proficiently, one is hampered from functioning at an optimal level in our contemporary technologically advanced and highly mediated globalized world. More than ever before, these times require working citizens to possess fluid intelligence and the qualification in and ability to perform technical skills.

Observations and insights such as these are most pertinent to our South African and African context where dualistic streams of life persist doggedly, with the divide bifurcated between the formal technical economy and an informal and precarious one. This dualism is palpable in South Africa and one can tentatively infer that the difference between a more stable middle class livelihood and the vulnerable limiting working class and poor lifestyle is, apart from the more obvious socio-historical and economic consequences of colonialism, apartheid and neoliberal economic policies, the holding of tertiary qualifications and the possession of proficient literacy levels and some competence in computer and other technological interfaces.

I accompanied Mandela Rhodes Scholars to the forum on literacy hosted by Oxford University Press in Goodwood, Cape Town on the 13thof July. This symposium was the first of ours and OUP’s broader Mandela centenary celebrations. Overall, we partnered to organise, produce and facilitate two primary events in honour and commemoration of Madiba’s 100 years as well as his legacy. The second event was the 100 Scholars for Madiba’s 100 on the 14th of July, and OUP, whom in fact we have been in a successful 10 year collaborative relationship with, was a primary donor for this function [i]. Returning to the literacy event, Nic Spaull, one of the foremost researchers in education in South Africa and who’s currently a Senior Researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, was the keynote speaker. His presentation was aptly titled, Reading for Meaning: Foundations for the Future. He begun by airing factual information about South Africa and explicated on such sobering statistics as: economic growth recorded at the glacial pace of 0,5%, youth unemployment levels staggering at 50%, intergenerational inequality plagues (if your parents are poor there’s a 90% likelihood of you being poor), prevalence of salient wealth inequality (10% of the population own 95% of the wealth) and furthermore, the small tax base of about 14% pay income tax in the context where about 17 million people rely on social grants.

However, the most pertinent statistic highlighted was that 78% of South African grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. In the 2016 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) Reading Achievement Distribution report, South Africa (measured against 49 countries of grade 4 peers) came last. To measure this against another international standard, the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit reported that grade 5 second language learners from the rural areas reported literacy rates comparable to those of grade 1 second language learners in Florida (U.S). Therefore, they cannot communicate at a proficient capacity in oral communication nor comprehend at a competent level in English. This is an epidemic calamity and one that, bearing in mind the aforementioned dualistic economy and historic socio-economic iniquities, contributes precipitously to recycling economic immiseration, poverty and intergenerational inequality.

Well what does one do in the face of such terminal tremendous crises? Nic suggested a few steps to follow, and posed these as the potential antidote to the aforementioned literacy dysfunction. The first of these being that of leverage, and here this function is applicable because R351 billion (2018) is the government expenditure on education. Therefore, if there is some availability of revenue then what remains to be influenced is how these financial resources are distributed. In contrast, private funding dedicated to expenditure on education is R4,5 billion. Nic made an appeal to the Scholars, as well as those who’ve been beneficiaries of such programmes as the MRF and thus have the privilege of quality education, to consider pursuing careers in the public sector where they may contribute to the effective expenditure of the money reserved for education.

Secondly, to mitigate the crisis of illiteracy will require strategic prioritising to identify the primary binding constraints to specified progress. Therefore, stringent measures to establish structures that ensure accountability as well as capacity amongst the many women and men who facilitate the distribution of resources. Accountability here would relate to tracking that incentivised employees are performing the tasks detailed in their job descriptions. Moreover, the system needs to be augmented by structures that provide transparency such that it is readily discernible that each employee has the ability to execute their specified functions. One such programme is the Funda Wande multimedia course, a quality course dedicated to teaching foundation phase teachers how to teach reading and mathematics. The third measure is that of reinforcing the imperative for independent evaluation. Indeed, there is little guarantee that the provision of money will automatically lead to improvements. Furthermore, to reiterate the import of independence, one cannot simultaneously be the player and referee. Resources, 5-10% of the overall budget, should be allocated to evaluation by an autonomous regulator. This function of evaluation needs to be critical and it should provide rigorous quantitative evaluations. Lastly, research supports that early childhood development and early literacy are the foundations upon which all other learning depends. Thus, a significant amount of the allotted money needs to be diverted to programmes that develop, cultivate and nurture early childhood literacy. Oxford University Press also had the opportunity to showcase their formidable intervention programmes that are too numerous to tally, but can be found at here.

Owing to our dualistic economy a homogenous approach to solving the issues of illiteracy would be inadequate and inoperable. To give this point further qualification, the aforementioned funds dedicated for expenditure on education have grossly variant consequences amongst private and public schools. Private schools do not display similar results of literary dysfunction for reasons that touch on the legacies of history as well as those of quality when it comes to teaching and other remedial and support programmes. Furthermore, innumerable complexities arise from the fact of our multilingual national make-up. Therefore, as Nic reiterated throughout his presentation, competent people, our Scholars included in this injunction, will have to get involved in improving functional literacy in primary schools as well as at secondary and tertiary levels. The recorded statistic that 78% of grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language is a national crisis, and this is one of the reasons for the persistence of poverty and the unequal access to opportunities that promise social ascension. South Africa is imperiled by this dysfunction and in the year of Madiba’s centenary, who remarked on the centrality of education in empowering the disenfranchised, it befalls all of us to begin making an active contribution towards the eradication of this societal ill.

[i] More on the 100 Scholars for Madiba’s 100 can be found here.

Works Cited

13 July 2018. Reading for Meaning. Presentation to Oxford University Press Centennial Celebration.

Zimpande Kawanu
(South Africa & UCT, 2017)