International Day of Education: How South Africa can fix its education system

Posted on January 24, 2022

The International Day of Education is celebrated annually on 24 January. This is the day on which there is a celebration of the role of education for peace and development. Inclusive and equitable education is important for lifelong opportunities, achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty.

It is globally believed that digital skills and the use of digital technologies for learning can contribute to closing the various gaps in education. Through access to digital infrastructure, connectivity, digital curriculum resources and digital learning, we will be better equipped to achieve quality education for all.

2022 will be the fourth International Day of Education under the theme Changing Course, Transforming Education. In its Futures of Education report, UNESCO details that transforming the future requires an urgent rebalancing of relationships. These relationships are of each other, nature and technology. The prioritisation and fostering of these relationships would allow for breakthrough opportunities, while raising serious concerns for equity, inclusion and democratic participation. The intention of the theme for this year is to showcase the most important transformations that have to be nurtured to realise everyone's fundamental right to education. The theme is aimed at generating discourse on how to strengthen education as a public endeavour and common good, how to steer digital transformation, support teachers, safeguard the planet and unlock potential in every person to contribute to the collective well-being.

The challenges in the South African education system are complex. One of the core challenges faced by the education system has been literacy. Literacy is fundamental in achieving a successful career and opportunities. Literacy is also a tool that can bring improvement in the quality of life for an individual and the communities in which they live. Literacy goes beyond being able to read and write. Rather it is the ability to make use of these skills and effective communication. With modernity and globalisation, literacy has become far more diversified than simply reading a book.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) painted a picture of primary school-level reading in South Africa. The study concluded that the problem with literacy in South Africa is learners having to transition from "learning to read to reading to learn". PIRLS clarified that literacy needed to be understood from different facets: digital, media and cultural. Digital literacy is having the ability to understand information across different formats that include computers, the internet and cellphones. Media literacy, on the other hand, is the ability to understand media in various forms, for example how a television and radio work; and how to access magazines, newspapers. Cultural literacy is having an understanding and appreciation of other cultures. Cultural literacy requires one to examine the different values, traditions and beliefs of others in society.

A population with high literacy skills subsequently helps a country and gives the nation abilities to face different social challenges. It is assumed that countries with highly literate communities are in a better position to have governance in a multicultural society. Literacy is therefore a fundamental human right. It is crucial for human development and provides individuals the ability to have an improved standard of living.

Cause for global celebration

Over the last three decades, literacy has been a cause of global celebration. There are now nearly four billion literate people globally. However, literacy for everyone – especially children and youth – remains an unaccomplished and ever moving target. According to the Institute for Statistics, literacy rates for adults and youth are on the rise. Women aged 15 to 24 are making the strongest gains, but they are still behind men aged 15 to 24. In 2018, 92% of male youth had literacy skills while females fell short at 87%. Of the countries that have the data on literacy rates, more than half have recorded 95% or higher when it comes to their literacy rates. South Africa does not qualify.

The fundamental framework policy on education in South Africa is the White Paper on Education and Training in a Democratic South Africa: First Steps to Develop a New System. NEPA and ABET have been the policies that the South African government has implemented in an attempt to better the country's literacy levels. Under NEPA, various policies have been implemented by the South African government to ensure quality education and high literacy rates. One of these policies has been the Integrated National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy (INLNS), which was introduced in 2014 as part of the education sector's response to the NDP.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga launched several initiatives to make education literacy an absolute priority. Motshekga emphasised the importance of ensuring that learners could read for meaning. Some of these initiatives include:

  • Read to Lead Campaign
  • National Reading Coalition
  • Integrated National Reading Sector Plan, and
  • Presidential Reading Circles

It is very important to note that issues with INLNS existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Let us unpack this by looking at the ABET policy.


ABET focuses on the literacy levels of adults and youth. In 2008, the South African government introduced the Kha Ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign. The campaign seeks to help adults who have missed out on education and those who cannot read or write. Credit must be given to the campaign for putting in the effort to fix the educational inequalities created by the apartheid system. The campaign managed to help 2.6 million illiterate adults, 75% of whom were black and were subject to the Bantu education system before 1994. Additionally, the campaign has enabled 2 million adults to become literate and numerate in at least one of the 11 official languages.

However, it was important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic brought the campaign to a halt and revealed errors in the literacy campaign of the South African government. The Level 5 and Level 4 lockdowns led to the sudden stop of the campaign. Classes held under the campaign were majority contact classes, and the lockdowns forced learners to stay home.

This then brings us to the second matter of revealed errors in the literacy campaign. The COVID-19 crisis came at the plight of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and at the ushering of the Fifth Industrial Revolution (5IR). Even though the pandemic led to the disruption of global and domestic systems, it also gave us an era that embraces technology in all aspects of our lives. This embrace of technology includes our education system. As part of the INLNS, the government launched the Learning and Teaching Support Materials (LTSM) programme in 2019. The LTSM programme worked to provide tablets for all South African learners, with quintile 1 (the poorest quintile) being a priority (Business Tech 2019). The LTSM has been an illustration of embracing the 4IR in our education system. However, this is not enough. This project proved to be a failure when shortly after its implementation the Gauteng and Eastern Cape education departments had to withdraw 90 000 tablets from 21 township schools due to a high number of burglaries.

Nic Spaull, education expert, presented evidence that having working computer labs instead of smart devices would have been a much more successful solution.

"The area of one-device-per-child has been studied extensively in various developing countries and has consistently shown that providing technology to individual learners is not the most cost-effective method of improving learning outcomes. Rather, the investment of computer labs at schools is far more efficient," Spaull said.


Where do we go from here? Firstly, one has to acknowledge that matters concerning the South African education system are complex and therefore require solutions showing an awareness of that complexity. Our Constitution acknowledges education to be an intrinsic human right. Literacy is the foundational step of the fulfilment of that right.

The understanding of literacy in education policies needs to go beyond the traditional understanding of reading and writing – it is imperative to fully embrace 4IR and 5IR.

The International Literacy Day theme for 2021 was Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide, and paired with the 2022 International Education Day theme can work cohesively. The South African literacy curricula needs to accommodate all the definitions of literacy: traditional, media and digital. This full accommodation should be applicable to both basic education and adult education programmes. This is a long-term investment for the socio-economic health of South African individuals and for the goal of having a prosperous national economy.

Investment in literacy is a direct investment in eradicating the high unemployment levels in our country.

With South Africa's unemployment rate sitting at an all-time high of 34% and 74% of the youth being unemployed, it is important to fix matters concerning literacy. By having an accommodating definition of literacy, especially that of digital literacy, our education sector can invest in technology and science at a basic education level. Children need to be aware at a young age of the increasingly technological world we are in and they need to be equipped with the necessary skills to manoeuvre through that world.

As it stands, South Africa has been ranked as the country with the most teaching subjects in the world. A lean approach needs to be taken that prioritises computer literacy, mathematics and science. This is an investment for our country of producing citizens that can be viable for the job market and bring long-term economic stimulation.

In addition to the reading campaign set out by the basic education minister, there needs to be a concerted effort towards reading culture among the youth of the country.

Ideally people should be getting to a point of reading voluntarily which would lead to one wanting to better themselves. This would have educational benefits but also lead to personal development. Personal development achieved through the means of reading encompasses development in all spheres of life: economic, social, health and emotional. Thus, making way for highly functional citizens for the South African state.

It is important for the South African government to prioritise the responsibility of providing education as a basic human right. Education is crucial in the improvement of the quality of life, economically and sociologically. Education can be used to directly address issues of unemployment, gender-based violence and poverty in our country. Indeed, as Nelson Mandela said "the power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation".

Yanga Malotana, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria

This article first appeared on news24 on 24 January 2022.

- Author Yanga Malotana
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2022. All rights reserved.

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