By Jessie Taylor


Increasing access to books is essential for improving South Africa’s literacy rates. Not only does access to books ensure that children have the necessary literacy skills to excel in their schooling, but it also provides some important benefits for childhood development.

South Africa faces alarmingly low literacy rates. Experts estimate the vast majority of children in early schooling can’t read for meaning. And a lack of in-person learning time over the last two years – the result of the pandemic – is likely to make it even more difficult to close this gap in coming years.


Low literacy levels among learners

The closure of Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres and primary schools due to the pandemic means that children have lost the momentum they would have had in their educational foundation. This could delay language and reading development – even beyond the challenges already experienced in the country’s education system.

In the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), 80% of Grade 4 learners were unable to read for meaning across all languages in South Africa. The PIRLS assesses reading comprehension and monitors trends in reading literacy. At the time of the 2016 study, South Africa placed last out of the 50 countries participating.

Poor literacy rates can have long term impacts on learners. Children who struggle to read by age 13 have the highest risk of dropping out of schooling, and this, in turn, can impact adult literacy rates as well as future employment opportunities. Limited employment opportunities mean families are unable to break out of the cycle of poverty.

South Africa’s adult literacy rates are also on the decrease, and with an 87% adult literacy rate, South Africa ranks below countries such as Mexico and Brazil. High adult literacy affects child literacy, as parents are often unable to assist with teaching children at home.


A future of avid readers

Education is one of the country’s nine most pressing challenges, according to South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP). The NDP looks to improve the quality of education for all the country’s children by 2030. But there is still some way to go, especially considering that only around two-thirds of learners complete their National Senior Certificate.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says of the department’s priorities, ensuring learners can read for meaning is the most important. To accomplish this, several initiatives have been launched, including the Read to Lead Campaign, the National Reading Coalition, the Integrated National Reading Sector Plan and Presidential Reading Circles.

One of the key challenges in improving literacy rates is access to books, both for enjoyment and for learning. An estimated 70% of the poorest primary schools in the country do not have access to in-school libraries. In addition, estimates find that nearly 60% of households don’t own a leisure reading book. Only around 14% of the population are active book readers, and only 5% of parents read to their children. 

Being able to read is an important part of a child’s development and exposing children to books at an early age helps with their vocabulary development and language skills.  

But these benefits go beyond academic achievement – reading has been found to boost mental health and cognitive ability. Literacy also creates opportunities for people to develop skills that will help them provide for themselves and their families.


South Africa’s internationally acclaimed literature

South Africa has grown several successful authors, and four South African novels have won the Booker Prize. The Booker Prize is considered one of the most prestigious awards in English literature.

South Africa’s first author to receive the award is Nadine Gordimer, who won the Booker in 1974 for The Conservationist. She also received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991.

JM Coetzee won the award in 1999 for his novel, Disgrace, as well as in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K. Coetzee also received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Most recently, South African Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for his book The Promise.

Galgut, now 57-years-old, wrote his first novel at the age of 17 and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. 

His latest offering was described by the Booker Prize judges as “an extraordinary story” rich in themes and South African history, which provides an account of a white South African family navigating the end of apartheid.



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