According to the 2012 General Household Survey (GHS) conducted by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), the adult literacy rate is qualified as the self-reported ability to read and write short sentences.
But researchers and independent analysts warn that these general statistics can lull one into a false sense of security regarding the real levels of literacy in South Africa.
Surette van Staden, a co-national research co-ordinator for the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2011, says it is dangerous to use such a loose categorisation for literacy. “The ability to read and write short sentences is perhaps an indication of functionality, if anything,” said Van Staden.
The survey asked adults over the age of 15, whose level of education was lower than Grade 7, whether or not they are able to, have some difficulty, or have a lot of difficultly in writing their name, reading, filling in a form, writing a letter, calculating monetary change or reading road signs.
The survey found about 2.643 million people in South Africa who have some or a lot of difficultly reading, or are unable to read. This corresponds to almost 7% of the adult population.
In calculating the literacy rate, the GHS assumes that anyone with an education level equal to or higher than Grade 7 is literate.
This means that 18 958 million people, who are over the age of 20 and who have a highest education level of between Grade 7 and 11, were not asked if they have any difficulty reading or writing.
“This is not supposed to be an objective measure of literacy, but merely a self-reported indicative dimension,” manager for education statistics at StatsSA, Niel Roux said. “By focusing on those with no education, or Grade 7 or lower, we increase the likelihood of truthful answers,” said Roux.
This is because a person with a certain level of education, who is supposed to have mastered a skill such as reading and writing, is more likely to lie about their abilities because of pride.
In the past, according to University of KwaZulu-Natal Population and Development Studies Professor Dori Posel, when the survey asked those with Grade 7 and up if they could read and write, almost all respondents said yes. “The problem is that saying you are able to read and write says nothing about how well you can read and write,” said Posel.
According to the department of basic education, a pupil between six and seven years of age exiting Grade 1 should be able to read and write simple sentences.
However, according to literacy programme co-ordinator for GADRA Education, Kelly Long, it is entirely unrealistic to assume that everyone with a Grade 7 or higher can read and write a short simple sentence.
“To truly be literate one must be able not only to decipher the symbols which make up words but also to interpret text or read for meaning,” added Long.
Roux admitted that it would be statistically beneficial to have asked older participants with an education level higher than Grade 7 whether or not they have difficultly reading and writing.
But he added that the GHS was not an ideal platform on which to be asking these questions. “Our estimates are a bit higher than the results of objective assessments but similar to other self-assessed questionnaires,” said Roux.