South Africa Faces Ongoing Challenges In Adult Literacy


The Department of Higher Education and Training has highlighted the pressing need to provide education and training to adults who lack basic literacy skills. Despite significant progress in eradicating illiteracy, the country still grapples with a concerning number of functionally illiterate adults. 



The National Development Plan 2030 and the White Paper on Post-School Education (PSET) and Training call for Community Education and Training (CET) colleges to play a vital role in offering a diverse range of courses, from adult basic education to second-chance matric programs.

However, to effectively address illiteracy, the extent of the problem and its various dimensions must be understood.

Illiteracy Across Gender, Race, Age, and Geography

The challenges of illiteracy in South Africa cut across various demographics. In 2021, the adult illiteracy rate was 10.5%, showing a 2% improvement from 2019 and a significant reduction of 6.9% over the past decade. 

Despite this progress, the fact that nearly 4 million adults remain functionally illiterate is concerning, especially given that almost three decades have passed since the country gained democracy in 1994.

Notably, illiteracy levels are higher among women, hindering their economic and social progress. The illiteracy rate for women was 11.3% in 2021, while for men, it was 9.6%. Moreover, illiteracy is more prevalent among black Africans, with an illiteracy rate of 11.9% in 2021, compared to 0.1% for white adults.

The Impact of Age and Geographical Location

Age is a significant factor in illiteracy rates. In 2021, the highest illiteracy rate was observed among 60-64-year-olds (29.2%), followed by 55-59-year-olds (22.9%) and 50-54-year-olds (16.3%). Younger adults generally have higher literacy rates due to improved access to education since 1994. 

However, it remains concerning that over 221,000 individuals aged 15-19 and over 96,000 individuals aged 20-24 have not completed Grade 7 of schooling. Geographically, KwaZulu-Natal reported the highest number of illiterate adults in South Africa in 2021 (918,935), followed by the Eastern Cape (567,624) and Limpopo (508,239).

Notably, Gauteng and the Western Cape had illiteracy rates below the national average (4.6% and 6.7% respectively), while the North West (15.8%) and the Eastern Cape (15.0%) had the highest rates.

Addressing the Challenge

Illiteracy has no place in the modern era of technology and information. It is crucial to increase educational opportunities, particularly through CET colleges and Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) programs. 

These institutions must be adequately resourced to tackle the shortage of education facilities and incorporate digital literacy and platforms into their offerings.

The CET college sector should establish targets for reducing illiteracy rates and ensure the provision of quality ABET programs that effectively address illiteracy.

While South Africa has made significant progress in reducing adult illiteracy rates, the fact remains that nearly 4 million adults in the country are still functionally illiterate. Addressing illiteracy is vital for the overall development and competitiveness of the nation.

Through the implementation of well-resourced ABET programs and leveraging digital platforms, CET colleges can play a critical role in equipping adults.

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Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says the solution to improved literacy levels in South Africa lies in improving work in the foundation phase.




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