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A story for those who can’t read

If you are able to read this story, consider yourself lucky. Nine hundred million adults – ­one out of three in the world – could not read this story, even if it was written in their own language. In South Africa alone, it is claimed that over half the adult population are in need of some level of literacy training. To fight this huge problem, the United Nations has declared 1990 International Literacy Year. But what is the UN’s campaign all about, and what is being done in our own country to provide literacy for our people? To find the answers to these and other questions, Learn and Teach spoke to Brian Cooper, the national organiser of the National Literacy Co-operation, an umbrella body of progressive literacy organisations in South Africa.

Can you please tell us about the aims of International Literacy Year?

The United Nations has declared 1990 to be International Literacy Year, and the period from 1990 to the year 2000 as the Decade of Literacy. The aim is to get people, organisations and governments across the world to think about literacy and to do something about it. This is because illiteracy is a problem in nearly every country in the world. The aim of the campaign is for every adult in the world to be able to read and write by the year 2000.

What exactly is meant by the term literacy?

It is not easy to say what literacy is. Some people say that literacy is being able to read and write. Other people – such as those in progressive literacy organisations­ say that literacy is not just reading and writing. It is being able to understand the world and to do something about it. Literacy means people having the confidence and knowledge to enter into debates and to fully take part in the democratic process. So for some people, literacy goes beyond the teaching of how to read and write, and includes a certain amount of adult education as well.

How many people in South Africa are illiterate?

Again, this is a difficult question to answer. No proper studies have been done. The last time a person tried to answer this question was in 1984. Linda Wedepohl at the University of Cape Town worked out that 11 million adults in South Africa need some form of literacy training. But to do a proper, up-to-date study would be very expensive and literacy organisations do not have the money for this.

What, in your opinion, are the causes of illiteracy in South Africa?

We need to remember that when we talk about illiterate people, we are talking about illiterate adults. Children who are still at school are not thought of as illiterate. But illiteracy is linked to schooling. Everyone knows that so-called “Bantu Education” has never offered people proper schooling. The poor conditions which people live under and the poor education they received means that there are millions of adults who did not receive proper schooling. These adults cannot read and write. There are also many adults who can read and write, but only a little. So the biggest cause of illiteracy in South Africa is apartheid. Apartheid has denied the people of South Africa many rights, and education is one of them. But it would be wrong to think that just removing apartheid will sort out the problems of education and illiteracy. We need free, compulsory education of a high standard.

Who is doing literacy work at the moment in South Africa, and how many people are they reaching?

There are three main groups in South Africa who do literacy work. These are the government, big business and non-government literacy projects. The government offers literacy classes through the Department of Education and Training. There are some companies which offer literacy and training to their workers. And there are a small number of non-government literacy projects which offer literacy. But these three groups who are providing literacy training do not share the same understanding of literacy. Some see literacy as a way of helping people to live with apartheid, or as a way of increasing the productivity of their workers. Some see literacy as a way of building democracy and fighting apartheid. All of these literacy groups, however, are together reaching less than one out of every 100 illiterate adults.

Why are so few people being reached?

Providing literacy skills is a very expensive job. Teaching adults is different to teaching children. Adults who work cannot go to school, and need a different type of teaching. It is not good to have more than 10 adults in a literacy class. If there are 11 million adults who need literacy skills, then there is a need for thousands upon thousands of teachers.

Progressive literacy projects do not have the number of staff, or the money to train this number of teachers. It is only the government and big business who have the money, but they have not really been interested in adult education. When there is a people’s government in South Africa, then we may see more attention being paid to literacy and adult education.

Could you please tell us about the structure which has been formed by progressive literacy organisations?

In 1989 a number of non-governmental literacy projects across the country formed a national network called the National Literacy Co-operation (NLC). The aim was to work together to find ways of providing literacy and adult education to more people. More than this, the aim was to use literacy as a weapon in the struggle against apartheid. To do this, members of the NLC work with people’s organisations and trade unions. At the moment the NLC has more than 20 member projects which meet in their regions to share ideas and skills. There are regional groups in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Natal, Southern Transvaal, and in the Northern Transvaal.

How are the progressive literacy organisations celebrating International Literacy Year?

Literacy organisations, in their regional structures, have set their own goals. But the main focus has been to increase the awareness of people and organisations about literacy. The idea is for literacy organisations to host public events in each region, with a degree of national co-ordination. If is hoped that other progressive non-literacy organisations in each region will be involved, either as co-hosts or as participants. Each region will decide what kind of events they will have. There will probably be rallies in the different regions to celebrate International Literacy Day, which is on the 8th of September.

What are the biggest challenges facing literacy organisations, no~, and in the future?

I think there are three main challenges facing progressive literacy organisations. Firstly, literacy organisations need to form a common vision of-and approach to -literacy work by coming together in an effective national body.

Secondly, to find ways of strengthening the link between literacy work and the broader struggle, by consulting with mass based organisations in order to put literacy on the agendas of these organisations.

Thirdly, for literacy organisations to work with those people and organisations that are at the moment formulating education policies for a post apartheid South Africa. Literacy organisations must be part and parcel of these discussions, and not continue, as they have done, to work in isolation. Literacy organisations need to prepare for the day when a people’s government comes to power because, in the end, only a future progressive government will have the resources and the will to provide literacy training and adult education on the large scale that is so urgently needed.


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