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SA Has a small reading population. Academics are too lazy to read and write, while politicians are allergic to books. Yet, illiteracy and ignorance are some of the most vexing of challenges of post-apartheid SA. Exacerbated by a poor education system and a general lack of a culture of reading in society, the persistence of these challenges undermines both our social and economic objectives.
Neither will the ambitious goal of halving poverty and under-development by 2014, nor the noble intention towards a knowledge-based economy by 2018, be achieved without a literate and a reading nation.
According to Statistics SA’s household survey released in August 2011, 19 percent of South Africans aged 20 and above are functionally illiterate. They can neither read nor write.
Although the number of people with formal education has increased between 2002 and 2010, more than 7 percent of the population has no formal education at all.
So weak is the public schooling system that it is failing properly to equip pupils with the basic skills to read and write. It is well known that SA pupils perform below their required level and age. International studies have proved it, and national assessments have confirmed it.
Public schooling is reproducing, instead of combating, illiteracy.
Higher education continues to pay a heavy price for the failures of secondary and primary education.
The schooling system churns out hordes of pupils who are not ripe for university education.
According to a 2009 study commissioned by Higher Education SA, the majority of first-year students enrolled at institutions of higher learning could not read and write proficiently.
More than 73 percent required short to long-term additional support if they were to pass.
However, the problem in SA is not just about the large numbers of people who cannot read and write; it is that many of those who are literate are too lazy to read and write. In society in general, in academia and in politics, the culture of reading and writing is lacking.
As a society, we have a very small reading population. For instance, if a book sells more than a thousand copies in SA, it is considered to be doing well and a bestseller status usually goes to titles that have sold at least 3 000 copies.
In academia, despite progress made in the past 10 years towards improving the publication profiles of our universities, academics are not publishing as much as they should.
That we still have universities that account for one article an individual academic in three years is testimony to the antipathy that some academics have developed towards reading and writing.
According to Times Higher Education ratings, only the University of Cape Town is among the top 200 universities in the world, at 103. These ratings are mainly on the basis of the publications and patents produced by its academics.
In politics, it is worse. The SA breed of politicians is generally allergic to books. Whether in Parliament or in the executive, they are the same; they hardly read nor write. How do we tell if politicians read and write?
The relationship between reading and writing is symbiotic. Writing is a reflection of one’s reading and thinking. He who does not read cannot write, and he who cannot think cannot write.
It should be recalled that with every electoral term there are 400 politicians in the SA Parliament, making a cumulative total of 1 600 MPs since 1994. Yet, there are less than 20 books written by current and former MPs in 18 years.
SA politicians prefer hagiographies to be written about them than to write their own books. Even such celebrated intellectuals as Pallo Jordan have yet to write their own books.
The lethargy of politicians is testimony to the appalling state of our politics. It is not a politics of ideas, rather it is – as the national planning commission puts it – a “politics of short-termism and factionalism”.
Our political system is to blame for the lack of ideas. In a political system that encourages group think – where party discipline is emphasised at the expense of free thinking – it should not come as a surprise that politicians fear to rock the boat.
What is politics without ideas? Politics ought to be about the pursuit of ideas and mobilising people around those ideas.
Even if dancing and giggling are done, people must at some point stop and ponder the ideas you represent.
Is it important that politicians must read and write? The inquiry into General Bheki Cele’s alleged involvement in the lease agreement scandal does highlight, to some extent, the importance of having politicians who read, even if they only read important documents.
When Cele confessed that he did not read documents before signing them, some thought it was impossible. Sadly, it is possible.
Bizarre as his revelations may have been, Cele is not the only politician who does not read important documents, neither is he the first. The late Stella Sigcau, President Jacob Zuma and Premier Zweli Mkhize are known examples of politicians who do not read.
In his memoir, Politics in My Blood, published shortly after his passing, Professor Kader Asmal makes startling revelations about his former cabinet colleagues’ laziness in reading important documents.
Asmal wrote: “Like most of her colleagues, including the ANC contingent, Stella Sigcau seldom bothered to read the cabinet memos or documents that were the lifeblood of our business of government. This was true, sadly, of Jacob Zuma, when he was eventually appointed to (the) cabinet, and of a number of other ministers who all occupied key posts. Their collective lethargy was lamentable.”
Asmal’s clubbing of Zuma with Sigcau should be a cause of concern for the zealots who want him retained in Mangaung, especially if what Asmal says about Sigcau’s contribution in cabinet is a reflection on Zuma.
Asmal says she “contributed hardly anything of value to the cabinet in her 10 years of service”.
A question must, therefore, be posed: why did Asmal choose to single out Zuma, our current president, and liken him to Sigcau, who contributed hardly anything of value to the cabinet?
Unfortunately, we do not have another Asmal to tell us if what he observed then is still prevalent, and at what pace.
Despite his level of education, Dr Zweli Mkhize committed a serious blunder every literate person should avoid. He embarrassed himself when he publicly attacked Reverend Frank Chikane’s book without first reading it.
As a medical doctor, Mkhize ought to have suppressed his desire to prove his political loyalty and allowed the discipline of his training – the need always to verify facts – to prevail.
Other than the embarrassment such as the one experienced by Mkhize, the consequences of having a political contingent that does not read important documents can be dire. Had it not been for the sterling work of Thuli Madonsela, the government could have lost R1.6 billion because of the failure of a politician to read important documents.
Again, if Zuma had, when he chaired that October 2003 cabinet meeting, read Asmal’s memorandum on the policy on mergers of universities, we would perhaps have had a different configuration of universities in SA today. The way in which the cabinet adopted the memorandum left even its author, Kader Asmal, shocked. It was adopted without discussion.
Having understood the importance of reading and writing, we now have to answer the question: How to step up our fight against illiteracy and ignorance?
Our fight against illiteracy and ignorance will be won when we have improved the quality of our public schooling and culture of reading in society. Academics must derive pleasure in reading and writing if the dreams of a knowledge-based economy are to be achieved.
We need to reform our politics urgently away from politics of factions to a politics of ideas and substance.
Until the culture of reading and writing is harnessed in SA, the goals of halving poverty and underdevelopment will remain a chimera.
n Malada is a senior researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue (www.fpd.org.za). He is also a member of the Midrand Group.