The Verwoerdian world still haunts literacy in SA




Arena Holdings PTY


In the neighbourhood where I spent my earliest years most parents left home in the wee hours, rushing for the 4am train at the local station so they could get to work by 5.30am. They returned at dusk, too tired from working a 12hour shift to spend some quality time with their children — not to mention check their homework. Being read a bedtime story by one’s mother or father was something you saw only on television, if you were lucky enough to have one. Or if your “rich” neighbours down the street were kind enough to turn a blind eye when you and other local kids watched a TV drama by peeping through their living room window. Reading a book for leisure, especially as a child? There were hardly any books to speak of — save for a Holy Book here, and a hymn book over there. Most children wouldn’t voluntarily pick those up unless they were forced to by a parent or a Sunday school teacher. In reality, the relationship with books was limited to school and, even there, most pupils had to share their textbooks with classmates as there were never enough. It is 2023 and some of those who grew up in that neighbourhood have moved on to middle-class lives where they sing English lullabies to their little children after reading them bedtime stories. Though they may have not reached grade 1 yet, the bundles of joy make their parents proud every night as they read out their names and a couple of words from their children’s books. It is something that was almost unheard of when their parents were growing up in the bad old days, when children weren’t expected to know how to spell their own names until they had spent at least two years in lower primary school. So there is good progress. Sadly it is extremely limited. For the vast majority of South African households, the needle has crept up only slightly when it comes to literacy. It is as if they have not left the Verwoerdian world of the past. According to the recently published “Progress in International Reading Literacy Study”, 81% of our grade 4 pupils cannot read for meaning in any of our official languages. The study, which showed South Africa to be the worst among the 57 participating countries, has left many rightfully aghast. There is justified anger towards the education system for not prioritising early childhood development, and there are genuine questions being asked about the quality of teachers nurturing our young ones in quintile 1 schools. There are calls for the revival of annual national assessments, which were introduced by the department of basic education a couple years ago in a bid to keep track of progress in literacy and numeracy. All of these interventions are important, especially in the context of our extremely high unemployment. In the modern world, which is increasingly reliant on technology and less on labour, the chances of finding a job are vanishingly small if you are functionally illiterate. So policymakers should prioritise reading and writing at an early stage for all children. But what about parents and households? How do you encourage a generation of parents who did not grow up with books around them to inculcate a culture of reading for pleasure in their children and grandchildren? For those of us who had to travel long distances to access public libraries in our formative years, it is pleasing to see these fountains of knowledge springing up in every township and informal settlement across the nation. But they risk turning into white elephants unless there is a concerted campaign to promote their usage, and not just to access free Wi-Fi, by the youth. Various campaigns, including Nal’ibali, which the Sunday Times and Arena Holdings have been associated with for many years, are promoting the reading culture. Let’s support them through donating money and books we no longer use. But most importantly we need to make reading cool, not just for kids but for their parents too. Many of you reading this, like me, would have picked up the habit of reading for leisure from your parents and grandparents.