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SA’s reading crisis: We are load shedding our children, warns Mlambo-Ngcuka

  • Only 18% of South Africa’s 10-year-olds can read for meaning.
  • Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says the government is making the same mistake, as with Eskom, by not investing in education.
  • Jonathan Jansen says the only solution is to vote the ANC out of power in 2024.

South Africa’s former deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, has issued a dire warning to the government that they are making the same mistake with education as with Eskom.

Shocking new research shows that only 18% of South African Grade 4 children can read for meaning, taking the country back to 2011 reading levels.

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that all 10-year-old children should be able to read for meaning by 2030.

Referring to the country’s energy crisis, Mlambo-Ngcuka said: “We are in this situation because we didn’t invest enough in generation, therefore we don’t have enough energy to transmit and to distribute. Foundation phase (Grade R-3) reading is investing in generation. If we don’t do it now, we won’t have enough to transmit and distribute.”

She was speaking at the launch of the annual Reading Panel report on Tuesday in Stellenbosch.

Mlambo-Ngcuka established the panel last year to track whether South Africa will reach the 2030 goal set by Ramaphosa in his 2019 State of the Nation Address (SONA).

READ | Former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka part of AU’s Ethiopia-Tigray peace talks team

The panel tracks reading development, using data from a wide range of researchers, non-governmental organisations and provincial education departments.

Some of the panel’s main findings this year are:

  • Only 40% of children in no-fee schools know the letters of the alphabet by the end of Grade 1;
  • Even though the basic education department refers to a national reading plan, no such document actually exists in the public domain and there is no national budget for improving home-language reading; and
  • There is no face-to-face training for the over 850 000 educator assistants employed as part of the Presidency Youth Employment Initiative on contract positions, at a cost of over R25 billion.

“In 2016, 22% of Grade 4 children could read for meaning… due to Covid-19, it is estimated that now only 18% can read for meaning, the same level as 2011, erasing a decade of progress in reading outcomes,” said Professor Nic Spaull, an education economist from Stellenbosch University and the secretary of the panel.

‘The pain of load shedding in education’

Mlambo-Ngcuka said she was worried that reading was “pushed back in the eyes of the nation” because of the load shedding crisis. She credited the Western Cape and Gauteng for introducing their own reading strategies, but said this wasn’t enough.

“This year, we are bringing the issue back on the agenda and will keep it on the front pages and take necessary action.”

The former deputy president said she wanted to avoid “the pain of load shedding in education”.

“We need a plan, we need a budget and we need action… We should shift our focus from exclusively focusing on matric results to what happens before a child gets to matric. The concerns start in Grade 1 and only some make it to Grade 12. Those we lose along the way become tsotsis, they are unemployed and develop mental health problems,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka.

‘Aspirational rhetoric’

Referring to Ramaphosa’s undertaking of 2019 to reach 100% reading for meaning of 10-year-old children by 2030, Spaull said that, at the current trajectory, South Africa will only reach the target in 2108 – 85 years from now.

“It is aspirational rhetoric to say 100% of children will read by 2030… rhetoric will not get us to 100%” said Spaull.

He called for “significant reforms in the way teachers are recruited, certified, supported; how resources are made available. None of this is possible without tackling the role of the trade unions, especially Sadtu (South African Democratic Teachers’ Union)”.

READ | Pupil stabbed to death at Gauteng school had suffered history of bullying, says family

Spaull said education was no longer a priority for Ramaphosa.

He based this on looking at the Presidency’s review of last year’s SONA: “The words ‘education’ and ‘reading’ don’t appear in the review.”

He said Ramaphosa was now a “jobs president” and the Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga did not prioritise.

“There is a difference between what they say and what they do. The president and the minister talk about reading, but don’t do anything.

“We lack leadership, urgency and courage to tackle this problem. If you don’t know you have cancer, you won’t accept chemotherapy. We are condemning 10-year-old kids to a very dark future,” Spaull said.

Dr Nic Spaull during his interview with News24 (sc

Dr Nic Spaull.

The Western Cape has budgeted R111 million for its own Reading for Meaning programme for Grades 1 to 3 pupils, and Gauteng has rolled out a Grade R reading programme, funded by the province and private donors.

Matric results mania

Western Cape education department head Brent Walters said there was too much focus on matric results, when foundation phase education had to be the focus.

“You build a house from the foundation, not the roof.”

Professor Michael Sachs, a former deputy director-general responsible for budgeting in the National Treasury, said budget wasn’t the problem for a lack of a proper reading strategy in the country.

READ | Matric results: Class of 2022 in numbers

The basic education department receives a budget of R250 billion per year; it can decide to ringfence part of it for a foundation phase reading programme.

“It might need some catalytic intervention to create more value. Look at Gauteng and the Western Cape… where there is a plan, there is a budget,” Sachs said.

Stellenbosch Education Professor Jonathan Jansen reserved his criticism for the ANC government, who he said “really doesn’t care about the children of the poorest of the poor. The sooner we realise that, the most likely we will see change”.

He took a dim view of Ramaphosa’s upcoming SONA on Thursday, saying “the president will lie to you again and he will sound very convincing”.

According to him, the only solution was to “vote these bastards out of power in 2024”.

Read the full 2023 Reading Panel report here.

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