According to Statistics South Africa’s household survey released in August last year, 19% of South Africans aged 20 and older are functionally illiterate. They can neither read nor write. Although the number of people with formal education has increased between 2002 and 2010, more than 7% of the population have no formal education at all. So weak is the public schooling system that it is failing to equip pupils properly with the basic skills to read and write. It is well known that South African pupils perform below their required level and age. International studies have proved it; and national assessments have confirmed it. Public schooling is reproducing, instead of combating, illiteracy. Higher education continues to pay a heavy price for the failures of secondary and primary education. The schooling system churns out hordes of students who are not ripe for university education.
According to a 2009 study commissioned by Higher Education South Africa, the majority of first-year students enrolled at institutions of higher learning could not read and write proficiently. More than 73% required short to long-term additional support if they were to pass.
However, the problem in South Africa is not just about the large numbers of people who cannot read and write; it is that many of those who are literate are too lazy to read and write. In society in general, in academia and in politics, the culture of reading and writing is lacking. As a society, we have a very small reading population. For instance, if a book sells over 1 000 copies in South Africa, it is considered to be doing well; and a bestseller status usually goes to titles that have sold at least 3 000 copies. In academia, despite progress made in the last 10 years towards improving the publication profiles of our universities, academics are not publishing as much as they should.
That we still have universities that account for one article per individual academic in three years is testimony to the antipathy some academics have developed towards reading and writing.
According to Times Higher Education ratings, only the University of Cape Town is amongst the top 200 universities in the world at 103. These ratings are mainly on the basis of the publications and patents produced by its academics.
In politics, it is worse. The South African breed of politicians is generally allergic to books. Whether in parliament or in the executive, they are the same; they hardly read or write. How do we tell if politicians read and write?
The relationship between reading and writing is symbiotic. Writing is a reflection of one’s reading and thinking. He who does not read cannot write, and he who cannot think cannot write.
It should be recalled that with every electoral term there are 400 politicians in the South African parliament, making a cumulative total of 1 600 parliamentarians since 1994. Yet, there are less than 20 books written by current and former parliamentarians in 18 years.
South African politicians prefer hagiographies to be written about them than to write their own books. Even such celebrated intellectuals as Pallo Jordan have yet to write their own books.
Is it important that politicians must read and write? The inquiry into the fitness of General Bheki Cele to hold office does highlight, to some extent, the importance of having politicians who read – even if they only read important documents. When Cele confessed that he did not read documents before signing them, some thought it was impossible. Sadly, it is possible.
Bizarre as his revelations may have been, Cele is not the only politician who does not read important documents, neither is he the first. The late Stella Siqcau, President Jacob Zuma and premier Zweli Mkhize are the known examples of politicians who do not read. In his memoir, Politics in My Blood, published shortly after his passing, Professor Kader Asmal makes startling revelations about his former cabinet colleagues’ laziness to read important documents. Asmal wrote: “Like most of her colleagues, including the ANC contingent, Siqcau seldom bothered to read the cabinet memos or documents that were the lifeblood of our business of government. This was true, sadly, of Zuma, when he was eventually appointed to the cabinet, and of a number of other ministers who all occupied key posts. Their collective lethargy was lamentable.”
Asmal’s clubbing of Zuma with Siqcau should be a cause of concern to the zealots who want him retained in Mangaung, especially if what he says about her contribution in the cabinet is a reflection on Zuma. Asmal says she “contributed hardly anything of value to the cabinet in her 10 years of service”. A question must therefore be posed: Why did Asmal choose to single out Zuma, our current president, and liken him to Siqcau? Unfortunately, we do not have another Asmal to tell us if what he observed then is still prevalent, and at what pace. Despite his level of education, Mkhize committed a serious blunder every literate person should avoid. He embarrassed himself when he publicly attacked Reverend Frank Chikane’s book without first reading it. As a medical doctor, Mkhize ought to have suppressed his desire to prove his political loyalty and allowed the discipline of his training – the need always to verify facts – to prevail.
Other than the embarrassment such as the one experienced by Mkhize, the consequences of having a political contingent that does not read important documents can be dire. Had it not been for the sterling work of Thuli Madonsela, government could have lost R1.6-billion because of the failure of a politician to read important documents.
Again, if Zuma had, when he chaired that October 2003 cabinet meeting, read Asmal’s memorandum on the policy on mergers of universities, we would perhaps have had a different configuration of universities in South Africa today. The way in which the cabinet adopted the memorandum left even its author, Asmal, shocked. It was adopted without a discussion.
Having understood the importance of reading and writing, we now have to answer the question: How to step up our fight against illiteracy and ignorance? Our fight against illiteracy and ignorance will be won when we have improved the quality of our public schooling and culture of reading in society. Academics must derive pleasure in reading and writing if the dreams of a knowledge-based economy are to be achieved.
We need urgently to reform our politics; away from politics of factions to a politics of ideas and substance. Until the culture of reading and writing is harnessed in South Africa, the goals of halving poverty and underdevelopment will remain a chimera.
By Brutus Malada, Senior Researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue