Literacy reduces Poverty

“If you can’t afford to travel just read a book.” 

If a book isn’t something you’re trained to save for, or can easily pick up. Then you’re screwed. 


The unemployment rate in South Africa has been fluctuating between 31.20 and 21.50 per cent between 2003 and 2008. In the fourth quarter of 2016 the unemployment rate was at 27.1%, with a reported 45% of our population earning below the R3500 estimated minimum wage. There are approximately 55 million people in South Africa as I write this, this means just over 25 million people can’t afford three wholesome meals a day. This is either you or me. 

I stay in a community where there are more people who are at home during the day than those who commute to work in the morning. This minority spends most of their vital energy working toward liberating their entire family out of the circle of poverty. Sadly, in most cases the same jobs only further entrench these miserable people into a more sadistic poverty of debt slavery. I grew up in a household led by a rural matriarch who was of the early generation of migrant labour force, so luckily most of her traditions of self-sufficiency were still intact during part of my turbulent childhood. She baked bread, grew vegetables, fruits, sold fried fish and offered tailoring services to the locals. These instinctive activities saved an average of R300 and pulled R200 of tax-free income monthly. The death of my grandmother’s generation was the death of that culture of self-sufficiency, the erosion of our relationship with land and relinquishing of personal responsibility to our wellbeing. Dentists, General Practitioners and hospitals weren’t as inundated as they’ve become nowadays. It is common knowledge that majority of all sickness could be prevented with our diet, and this includes the type of foods we feed our brains. A malnutritioned body is just as weak as a malnutritioned mind. Although we might have land, water and other resources to start living healthier but without a nourished mind that knows how to learn and is being fed wholesome knowledge there’s no hope. This is the knowledge which made grandma more of a producer than a consumer, the knowledge which made her thrift, skilled her in the supply & demand of her community’s basic needs. 

Academic reports state that about 8 out of 10 kids who graduate from high school don’t know how to learn. Children absolutely love learning at elementary level, we know that as humans we learn faster as kids but something sad happens in high school which switches most of us off . The school happens.  

There’s evidence that critical thinking and the faculty of reasoning aren’t developed by the current standard of the public schooling system as a skill.  A movement for the revolution of academia has been going on for over a decade now, from outside and from within. As a result more alternatives and supplementary solutions have developed through technology in more developed countries. These technologies have opened up the elitist world of academia and democratized resources which were previously limited to prestigious institutions; this innovation has also made the education experience much more interactive. This is all great but it still doesn’t mean anything if the people who need it the most can’t access it. In most cases the infrastructure might be there but the literacy skills to access information and consume it in a meaningful way is what lacks.

 This is another fault of an education system that was designed to produce labour force instead of entrepreneurs and self-sufficient innovators. Almost everything we learnt in township schools is irrelevant to true human development. Not to mention detrimental. 


There was no emphasis on what is now called foundational Literacies. Numeracy (not just the ability to count), scientific literacy, cultural literacy, financial literacy, and even with the eminent need for tech skills in the market township schools aren’t equipped to inculcate ICT literacy. Literacy in the aforementioned opens up one’s world to so much more. 

 The sooner one is adequately skilled in these foundational literacies the sooner a person is able to navigate the world more meaningfully. The development of some core competencies which inform how we approach complex challenges like communication, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving rely deeply on foundational literacy. It’s possible that some good teachers will get the ball rolling in the right direction but without community-based literacy programs and activities at home there’s a high likelihood of the child not making it out of the circle of poverty. In most functional societies institutions of learning aren’t limited to the academic system and its skewed admission requirements which let only a few in. There’ no denying the great vacuum of moral qualities which often go beyond the dimension of any public school to inculcate. The vacuum echoes at churches, homes, schools, politics and all spheres of township society. 

If I don’t romanticize black people’s ability to survive harsh poverty in the townships I’ve lived in, the bankruptcy  of characteristics and qualities such as leadership,community, initiative, social and cultural awareness, empathy and persistence has made them immensely valuable due to their higher demandA school curriculum is not a magic wand to the problems of learning, but some substantial leadership in education would help. 
Literacy programmes aren’t just about ability to read and write. It has to do with cultivating of minds to independently function, create or identify opportunities and explore their potential. It’s no secret that the gap between the rich and poor is maintained by the sanctioned ignorance of the majority. We must be kept preoccupied with the most basic of concerns that anything besides food, clothing, and shelter is a luxury. 

 In the book How Marxism Work, Chris Harman shows how necessary it is to keep the majority illiterate for a capitalist state to thrive. 

“The majority of the earth’s population were too busy scratching the soil for a meagre living to have time to develop systems of writing and reading, to create works of art, to build ships to trade, to plot the course of the stars, to discover the rudiments of mathematics, to work out when rivers would flood or how irrigation channels should be constructed. These things could only happen if some of the necessities of life were seized from the mass of the population and used to maintain a privileged minority which did not have to toil from sunrise to sunrise.”

Where to from here:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society. Source: Wikipedia

Okay, with this above definition in mind the UNESCO rates 770 million adults as illiterate in the world, 20% of whom are in Sub-Sahara Africa. South Africa & Zimbabwe score above 80% in adult literacy, whilst the region of Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and Ethiopia, have adult literacy rates below 50%

One of the indicators of human development has always been literacy, but with the global illiteracy being halved between 1970 and 2010 from 40s to 80s in percentage other studies have begun to inform the broader scope of indicators. There’s definitely much more opportunity for the less developed world to improve literacy rates due to the effects of globalization, this has also increased the demand for knowledge-based workers. I do believe that the bulk of the work rests on the public education system but still acknowledge that our governments are grossly incapacitated to carry such a burden, and therefore must explore nonconventional literacy initiatives to prepare more people for the skills demand of future economies.

The literacy improvement project is the responsibility of non-governmental organs, the first and most important being the family. If the family is dysfunctional the next best option should be an organ which is driven by forces within the community. The idea of community has changed to groupings based on interests more than demographics, so this makes for greater opportunity for peer education channels to be created. For example if 20 of us living in different parts of Soweto are interested in reading it’s easier to form an organisation around that interest than canvassing for members from one geographic area which might yield less than 20 people. 

There’s greater access to skills transfer than we think, a bunch of courses available online and organisations offering training and mentorships at no cost. This only needs champions to curate these resources according to an identified need per region or community. 

Our government departments can’t be left out of the equation, the quality of education taught at township schools must be challenged, and the methodologies must be rid of. E.g. Afrikaans being used as the only secondary-additional language in “good schools” is a colonial exclusion tactic that must be addressed. 

Professor Ken Robinson suggests that the archaic hierarchy of subjects which put maths and science at the top and creative subjects at the bottom must be completely done away with. Simply because in the last 3 decades evidence shows we’ve needed more creative solutions to problems created by the less creative people at the top. 

South Korea according to the world economic forum is a starling example of how early literacy program investments have direct impact in the economy. They’ve broken it down to a measurable science, ensuring a national return on investments by ensuring that children and young adults are fully literate for them to contribute much to society and participate in the economy productively. 

 We must rid our countries of the old capitalist rule of keeping people stupid so they’re easier to use as tools. The violence, deaths, disease and general instability which always results from this fascist way doesn’t make for a sustainable governing of a country. The wellness of a people is directly linked to the wellness of the country and how women, the first teachers are treated. 

Copyright Daliwonga Pantshwa

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