Covid-19 and the (ill-)health of literacies education in South Africa


Professor Peter Rule is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher and Adult Education at Stellenbosch University.

Literacy used to mean simply the ability to read and write a basic sentence. But now new literacies spring up almost overnight: Zoom literacy, Covid literacy, and all the literacies associated with social media. Covid-19 poses particular literacy challenges.

Literacy is one of the cornerstones of the contemporary world. For most of recorded human history, it was the preserve of a tiny elite of priests, administrators and nobles. In the past 200 years, it has become the prerogative of the masses and nations to aspire to a 100% literacy rate, although Unesco estimates that 773 million adults worldwide still lack basic literacy skills. 

Although South Africa’s official literacy rate is 95%, school children’s performance in comparative international tests indicates that, as a functional capability, it is much lower.

Literacy is especially important, both for individuals and for society, in a time of pandemic. The theme of this year’s International Literacy Day on 8 September is, “Literacy teaching and learning in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.”

In our rapidly changing world, the meanings of “literacy” are also changing. Literacy used to mean simply the ability to read and write a basic sentence. It evolved to mean using literacy to function effectively in everyday life – using an ATM, filling in forms, reading and writing letters, reading and reciting from sacred books. It was linked to learning to read, write and count in a school or adult classroom. Paulo Freire transformed our understanding of literacy as a political act and as a means of overcoming oppression: “reading the word in order to read the world.”

Now literacy is understood as multiple: “literacies” rather than a single uniform “literacy” that is neutral and universal. These literacies are understood as social practices in particular contexts, not just education: the workplace, hospital, taxi commute, voting booth or WhatsApp group. New literacies can spring up almost overnight: for example, Zoom literacy, Covid literacy, and all the literacies associated with social media.

The acquisition of literacies has also become generationally inflected. Research indicates that when mothers are literate, there are positive spin-offs for their children’s education and health. On the other hand, in a reversal of the traditional direction of literacy transmission, Millennials and Generation Z-ers teach their parents and grandparents how to download the latest app, find their video face, and stop mouthing silently on Zoom.

These various literacies are intricately related. Increasingly, as news, information, learning and social interaction shift to digital platforms, digital literacy has become essential: a foundation for acquiring many other literacies. Reflecting this trend, new subjects such as robotics and coding are being introduced in the South African school curriculum.

Covid-19 poses particular literacy challenges. A year ago, we used the term “going viral” to refer to gifs and memes and video clips on social media. The virulent Covid-19 pandemic shows the provenance of this metaphor as it crosses over again from a figure of speech to grave biological threat, as well as how different literacies (epidemiological, digital) draw on each other.   

Covid literacy has become a matter of life and death. Where, when and how to read the signs for protecting oneself and others is important for everyone. The messages are straightforward: wash hands often, wear a mask in public, sanitise surfaces, practice physical distancing, avoid crowds. It is amazing how rapidly this mantra has become part of our collective literacy, profoundly affecting our behaviour and interaction, and we have seen its efficacy in reducing rates of infection.

In countries where messages have been conflicting and politicised – for example, macho presidents refusing to wear masks in the US and Brazil – the results have been catastrophic. A similar debacle threatens to blight the effective roll-out of a vaccination when anti-vaxxers mobilise. Covid literacy is clearly not just about messages but also about role modelling. People acquire literacies by learning them from others, especially authority figures such as parents, teachers, health professionals and older peers, as well as presidents.   

Covid literacy is not just a matter of knowledge but also, crucially, of context and social justice. For people living in the shacklands of Khayelitsha, the favelas of Rio or the slums of Delhi, physical distancing and effective sanitisation are often impossible. Covid has exposed how social inequalities accentuate risk, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why South Africa – only 25th on the global population list – is 5th highest in recorded Covid-19 cases at the time of writing.

A significant silence around the effects of Covid-19 in South Africa concerns adult education. While the closing and opening of schools and universities has featured prominently in the media, there’s no mention of adult education centres which cater for hundreds of thousands of adults, mostly young, who are often casualties of the dysfunctional schooling system. 

These learners are trying to upgrade their education in public and private adult education centres, often against the odds. Most adult centres are very poorly resourced, without the capacity to provide online classes. While new curricula such as the National Senior Certificate for Adults (Nasca) have been developed and gazetted years ago, they have not yet been implemented, showing the stark chasm between policy discourse and reality. 

John Aitchison and Sandra Land describe the South African adult education system as “secured, not connected” to political will and effective implementation. This neglect has serious consequences for the development of literacies both of adults and of their children, and for a literate South Africa.

As we celebrate International Literacy Day, we are acutely aware of the changing shapes of literacy in the 21st century, entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But literacy is not just a technical and pedagogical matter. It is also a matter of social justice and equity. 

A just society draws on the literacies of its people to develop. But it also needs to create the conditions, including an adequately resourced adult education system, that will enable people to develop their literacies. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email letters@dailymaverick.co.za"