International Literacy Day promotes understanding













    Elijah Mhlanga
    Department of Education
    Media Relations
    +27 (0) 83 580 8275

    Staff Reporter

    “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

    Nelson Mandela knew the value of the pen and the sword, and used his powers of literary and oratory persuasion to stir the passions of South Africans to persevere in the fight for their rights before 1994. He used those same powers after the advent of democracy to usher in reconciliation and build bridges, showing that not only was literacy vital for success in life, but in communicating effectively, with understanding.

    Literacy for understanding

    According to UNESCO, “a literate person is one who can, with understanding, both read and write a short statement relevant to routine life, and capable of analytical understanding of men’s [humans’] condition in the world.”

    As the world commemorates International Literacy Day under the theme: Literacy and Sustainable Development, it is to this second end that South Africa’s Department of Education has proposed changes to its education policies to boost the profile of African languages in schools. It aims to encourage all young South Africans to communicate effectively in more than one language and understand each other’s lives. The country has 11 official languages, spoken regionally. The policy denotes Afrikaans as an African language.

    The idea of course isn’t new; South Africa’s first democratically elected president probably said it best: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. American author Rita Mae Brown echoed these sentiments: saying, “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

    While South Africa battles with improving literacy levels, especially among adults whose schooling was affected by apartheid, it is also important that the country preserve and promote indigenous languages to prevent knowledge and culture being lost. Mother tongue learning is also vital to schooling success, as learning subjects in secondary languages has seen school pupils’ grades drop dramatically. Pupils often switch from their mother tongue to instruction in English around Grade 3, and many parents believe that English is the key to life success.

    The policy has its detractors, who argue that implementation is difficult as resources – teaching materials and teachers – are minimal. The benefits are many though; improved cognitive ability; greater literacy in African languages leading to more African language books being published for a wider audience; and greater understanding between South Africans.

    South Africa’s literacy rate stands at around 92%, but definitions of literacy are variable. Statistics South Africa defines literacy as the self-reported ability to read and write short sentences.

    Heritage Month and literacy

    South Africa embarks on Heritage Month this September, with the Department of Arts and Culture also giving a nod to literacy as an understanding of the human understanding, launching its “Celebrating 20 Years of Democracy: Tell Your Story that Moves South Africa Forward” campaign.

    The campaign invites South Africans to talk about their heritage, including language, and is promoting the #heritagemixed hashtag on Twitter, where South Africans are encouraged to mix up heritage fashions and post their pictures online.


    Slider Image credit:
    Shawn Econo