Why is a large broad-based adult basic education programme not part of government’s ‘New Growth Path’? Are we content to merely provide pensions and grants to millions of adult South Africans who should be learning productive skills, entrepreneurship, basic health – and also about democracy?
We are marginalising our people and keeping them dependent while we focus on those who have better education. And while we ignore the poorly educated, a seasoned adult-education NGO, Project Literacy, is retrenching skilled staff: as reported last month, this is because grants from the National Skills Fund have been suspended while government completes the formalities surrounding its new skills qualifcations.
Adult basic education (ABE) can make dreams possible for thousands of adult South Africans who struggle daily for food and security. A strong South African ABE programme can offer education and training to help people make money, improve family health, share in community life, participate more in our democracy, take hold of their own human rights and extend these rights to others. It can help to build social justice and equity.
Take the story of a courageous rural literacy learner called Zanele, a member of an Operation Upgrade literacy class. She was the new wife in a polygamous family dominated by the first wife. In literacy lessons Zanele discovered that she had human rights and she questioned her role and status as a makoti (new bride, a newcomer to the family and a source of labour). She worried about HIV as well, after an alarming literacy discussion about how people get infected.
Zanele decided to free herself from the marriage and from the danger of HIV infection by her town-dwelling husband. To get this freedom, she needed to leave her husband’s homestead and make a living for herself. Her own family would not accept her return, for fear they would have to pay her lobola back to her husband. Zanele needed somewhere to live. She puzzled for weeks about finding a way out.
During discussion in her Operation Upgrade literacy class about a nearby low-cost rural housing scheme, Zanele said, “I am going to get a house!” She did. She and her little daughter now live in a simple two-room house where she can lock the door at night, grow her own vegetables and keep her own livestock. She does not have to cook and wash clothes for two other women and their families any more.
She had problems getting the house – completing the application form in English (with the help of her literacy educator), being threatened by the wives and the induna, and being beaten by her husband – but she managed in the end. She makes traditional Zulu wear to sell. “I have freedom!” she says.
Zanele’s story is common in adult basic education work. An adult literacy programme should cover human rights, HIV and AIDS, and solve social and economic problems relevant to the learners. It should include family health, gender issues, workplace issues and a host of other topics.
Is this adult basic education? Yes it is, if you link the teaching of reading and writing and counting to a range of topics of concern to the learners.
Operation Upgrade, a NGO in KwaZulu-Natal of which I am part, has ‘literacy and adult basic education for social change’ as its mission. In an isolated and neglected rural area north of Hluhluwe, the adult basic education programme teaches adult learners to understand and live with HIV and AIDS, write and read in isiZulu and English, calculate with money and run small businesses, grow vegetables and make and sell small crafts, including leather goods. Human rights – and gender issues – come as strong topics in the classes, and the learners make their own theatre sketches about life.
How is literacy linked to a development topic in an ABE programme? A skilled adult literacy educator will start a lesson with a discussion on a key topic. The educator must have knowledge to share about the topic, or use a resource person, such as a nurse or an agricultural extension worker. After the discussion the educator and the class do literacy work based on the topic. Every literacy lesson should have both development and literacy objectives. It’s the development objectives that create full adult basic education.
The premise underlying the Operation Upgrade programme is that combining adult literacy or adult basic education with HIV and AIDS education, family health education, livelihood development, food security support and human rights will help to break the cycle of poverty, poor family health and disease, and isolation – a cycle that makes up so much of the condition of disadvantaged adults in South Africa today. It is a model of integrated development education and support, using the literacy class as the vehicle for organising people and making inputs.
The content of the classes is negotiated with learners because the literacy experience must meet their needs. Learner needs for information or exposure to issues deepen as they go through literacy classes, developing greater critical consciousness about life in their community.
We believe that literacy learning per se is not enough for learners: they are seeking ways to change their lives. It is wrong to lead learners to believe that literacy alone will improve their circumstances: a broad-based adult basic education programme is needed that reflects social and economic issues. Such a programme must change with changes in its social context. Who would have thought to include HIV and AIDS in adult basic education 25 years ago?
Huge funding is being spent on ABET (adult basic education and training) programmes in South Africa with little thought about the value of this education for adults or - which is worse – whether adults really want pieces of a school-equivalency paper.
A look at the enrolment and examination numbers for Abet Level 4 across the provinces shows little interest in this learning. Some young people hope for ABET qualifications as alternatives to matric, but the numbers are small. And where are the mature adults studying at this level? Not many of those, either. Adult South Africans have real problems right now. They cannot wait for future generations to provide solutions.
Nobody is decrying the efforts made by the various state ABET units to deliver a good education product – but the vision of adult basic education in national policy is very different from the ‘replacement schooling’ curriculum they offer. The ABET budgets are low and the programme gets little political support.
The big question – How can adult basic education help people in South Africa to narrow the poverty gap? – has not yet been asked at a national level. Today’s adults are asking what is being done to improve their lives here and now.
And the ‘T’ for training in ABET? No budget for low-level skills training in the ABET classes – the further education and training colleges are touted as the T component but they are largely inaccessible and their courses do not get people jobs ….. the truth is, the jobs are not there.
We are firmly convinced that employment for all will be the answer to poverty. More than half of South Africa’s working-age population are either unemployed or not economically active. What about training for adults for self-employment and self-reliance? Are we serious about being a developmental state?
And then we spend billions on a nice-to-have mass adult literacy campaign, Masifundisane or Kha ri Gude, where adult learners in class for six months (part-time) learn to write in home their languages, speak and read a little English and do a little addition. It’s a quick dip in reading and writing. So what? “If you don’t use it you lose it”: there will be serious relapse from any minimum level of literacy reached in the mass campaign. When are we going to deliver useful education and training for adults?
We have seen enough of ‘dumped’ classes after six months in Kha Ri Gude, classes of learners who cry, “What’s next for us? We want to learn projects!” Development NGOs, underfunded, are trying to cope with this problem.
It’s time we stopped expecting traditional education to be the saviour of our disadvantaged adults. Plain literacy and school equivalency education will not put bread on the table tomorrow, nor will they teach a mother how to purify water from a river before her children drink.
Let’s be honest. You and I communicate through literacy, so that’s what we think all people should have, but illiterate adults have more pressing needs. And the programmes offered to them depend on voluntary attendance, so we need to meet their needs, not design learning for them to meet alien or unrelated needs.
The old role of the teacher-bestowing-knowledge merely serves to reinforce the status quo. There’s a vast, undereducated adult population which is not part of the economy and which has no involvement in developing our society. Is this what South Africa wants?
We have the opportunity now to give adult learners an education that helps them develop a critical perspective on how they live and shows them ways to change their lives. Functional and problem-solving adult basic education and literacy is the best available means of developing our nation.
- Pat Dean is the director of Operation Upgrade of South Africa, an NGO providing adult basic education with literacy. This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian and is republished here with the permission of the author.