Proxies and perplexities: What is the current state of adult (il)literacy in South Africa?

  • John Aitchison University of KwaZulu-Natal


This article provides a detailed analysis of the data from a range of official sources that
have been used to enumerate the number of people who can be described as totally or
functionally illiterate and estimates whether illiteracy in South Africa can be reduced in the
foreseeable future.
The study examines the use of years of schooling (conventionally now set at Grade 7) as
the proxy indicator of a person being functionally literate by the main sources, the General
Population Censuses of 1996, 2001, and 2011 and the annual General Household Surveys
and shows that these sources give somewhat contradictory and discordant estimates of the
rate at which there is gradual decline of illiteracy in South Africa. Other indicators based on
self reporting, also used in the Census and General Housing Surveys, show that a large
number of adult South Africans have difficulty in reading, writing and calculating with
numbers. The study also shows that the data presented by these surveys about participation
in literacy and adult basic education and training classes is inaccurate. Note is made that
currently South Africa does not make use of any means of direct testing of adult literacy.
The article concludes with an exploration on whether South Africa is able to reach the goal
of halving illiteracy by 2015. The target of such a reduction is necessarily based on what
the baseline number of illiterates is as well as decision on whether full function literacy
must be obtained or a merely a basic level of alphabetisation. Through a detailed estimation
of the results of the Kha Ri Gude adult literacy campaign since 2008 a finding is made that
the halving of illiteracy will be made, but only at the most basic level, and that attaining
full functional literacy for all South Africans remains a major task.

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