Needu studied 215 classes of Grade 2 pupils and found that 72% of the classes’ top three learners read below the average benchmark. Furthermore, reading material was lacking in the majority of classrooms, limiting the students’ access to literature that could aid and extend their literacy abilities. Having a snowball effect, countless concerns were raised about the future of these students and how proficient current young adults that claim to be literate actually are.

The 2013 Grand Household Survey (GHS) revealed that 92.9% of South Africa’s population is literate. Literacy considers anyone over the age of 15 with a Grade 7 or higher education qualification. While the remaining 7.1% of the population that are deemed illiterate were asked the level of difficulty they have with writing their name, filling in forms and reading road signs, those considered literate were not. Thus the high literacy rate is not a true reflection of South Africa’s ability to read. This furthers the concern about South Africans’ true literacy ability. There is no clear answer to our true level of ability but there are still a number of unresolved issues that hinder an improving literacy rate.

One of the most prevalent obstacles in improving literacy is the access to literature, specifically literature in a person’s mother tongue.

“When it comes to the improvement of literacy, it is vital that especially children, should have access to literary works in their mother tongues. The importance of mother tongue instruction at the first years of schooling is now widely accepted, and this is coupled with the adequate provision of children’s books in the various South African languages. Literature is an excellent tool to instill a reading culture and if children can access books in their mother tongues, it is likely that a love of reading can be developed at a very early age.” says Prof. Andries Visagie, a lecturer of Afrikaans and Dutch at UP. Prof. Visagie added that “the literacy of adults can also be improved through the availability of a range of popular and more literary texts. It is therefore very unfortunate that the M-Net book prizes were suspended a few months ago. These prizes were the biggest prizes available to writers in all of the South African languages.”

Reading and writing go hand in hand. South African literature is a growing art form but still an art form very much overlooked.

“The problem is perhaps most glaring in the (public) school English syllabuses. Why is it that Shakespeare is perpetually in the syllabus but Fugard never appears? I think that this focus on the so-called Western canon in schools gives pupils the impression that these works are ‘better’ or ‘more important’ than works produced locally and perhaps his is where the ‘devaluation’ of South African literature starts,” says Tuks graduate, Sreddy Yen. Yen, however, does not entirely agree with the idea that the answer is local literature. “The literacy problem isn’t a uniquely South African one, so I don’t quite see how promoting local literature would help. People who will read will read and those who won’t,  won’t.  Genre fiction is less ‘heavy’ than literary fiction, so perhaps it might be a useful way to get the masses reading. SA genre fiction is burgeoning the moment – the well-worn example being Lauren Beukes ” he said.

If the school system doesn’t make local literature available to students, efforts must be made on the students’ part to source them elsewhere. In more rural communities, this may prove difficult.

There are, however, efforts being made to bridge the gap between literature, literacy and South African youth. In Perdeby’s 2013 Literature Supplement, we reported on an initiative called Bookly, the MXit service that provides access to numerous books, both old and new, to anyone with a Wap-enabled phone. The cost of a single book totals only R30 making reading an activity that is cheaper as well as viable to those that struggled to obtain  physical literary material.

This month Bookly launched its second phase of its initiative. Apart from launching a mobile site, Bookly has extended itself to writing. Hoping to inspire those that read to write as well, Bookly now offers users the possibility of writing their own “bookly”. These pieces need not be voluminous novels as the app encourages all forms of writing including short stories and poems. Native VML’s head of inventions, Levon Rivers, said that they hoped that expansion would “allow children and young adults to create content that is relevant to them – and written in their own language”. He added that he hopes “Bookly will become  a platform that inspires writing, in any language, on any mobile device”. Booklies can be written on any device in the wide spectrum between a feature phone and desktop computer allowing even those without the latest technology to participate.

Bookly has offered incentives to those who take up the opportunity of sharing their stories with other users. The Bookly Award is specifically designed for South African writers under the age of 21. Rivers said that the award will be “based on activity on the app – number of reads, number of likes, reviews and ratings. From there the final vote will be cast by our panel of judges, which will be comprised of South African authors”. Popularity marks will be accumulated by sharing the work on social networks. It is River’s hope that this method will encourage other to read as people may be more likely to read their friend’s work.

Bookly won the MTN Most Innovative App Award as well as the Best Start-Up Award at the FutureBook Awards in London late last year. To date Bookly has had more than 700 000 unique visitors. This app as well as the innovations it inspires will undoubtedly be a useful tool in growing the future of South African literature and literacy.

Image: ventureburn.com

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