Many votes were spoiled in the recent local government elections. While a sizeable portion were spoiled deliberately to protest the state of municipal service delivery in the country, some were also as a result of basic mistakes made on the ballot paper by South Africans. Had these citizens been able to access and understand information on the voting process, these wasted votes could have otherwise been avoided. The numerous mistakes made at voting stations, once again, placed South Africa’s high illiteracy rate and the urgent need for further interventions, such as adult basic education and training or “ABET”, to arrest the situation firmly under the spotlight. While there have been improvements in the country’s adult literacy rate since democracy and this needs to be acknowledged, numerous citizens have still been deprived of a basic education and, therefore, a voice.
Many votes were deliberately spoiled in this year’s Local Government Elections as a means of protesting the state of service delivery at a local government level in the country. However, some experts believe that a portion of the many invalid votes were also as a result of basic mistakes made by voters, many of whom are either illiterate or semi-illiterate, on ballot papers. While the ballot papers were easy to understand, people who lack basic literacy and basic numeracy skills may not have been able to acquire the important knowledge they needed to complete them correctly. They may also not have known what to do when they made a mistake on the ballot and wanted to correct it. This is considering that their inability to read hinders them from accessing important public information, such as voter education.
Published and broadcasted in the media, as well as various social media accounts owned by government and opposition parties ahead of elections, voter information is often taken for granted by the literate. This information teaches us how to register to vote and how to complete ballot papers correctly to avoid misrepresentation or spoiled votes in the final count. We also received information about the electoral system so that we know how our votes will contribute to the final result in an election. However, this information is rendered useless by a sizeable portion of the population that is unable to access or understand it because of their lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills. This is just one example of how illiteracy excludes people and deprives them of a voice in a democratic system.
ADULT LITERACY AND ADULT NUMERACY – A CORNERSTONE OF DEMOCRACY
High quality adult literacy training and adult numeracy training for a truly free and fair election
More than a million votes were spoiled in this year’s municipal election. This is about 1,93% of all the votes cast by citizens who decided to participate in the local government elections. It is not unrealistic to believe that a portion of the spoiled votes were due to mistakes being made on the ballot paper. This is considering that the role that illiteracy plays in spoiled votes is a topic that continues to be widely studied in developed countries of the world. Experts have noted that even a complicated ballot design can confuse the most educated voter and potentially spoil a vote. It stands to reason then that someone with a very basic or no education at all will make simple errors on a ballot paper that results in an invalid or spoiled vote.
This is especially so if they are unable to access and understand basic clear information that helps citizens vote correctly. Bear in mind that people who establish voting rules; design ballots; embark on voter education; and supervise elections are literate. This means that the voting system mainly caters to people who are functionally literate and functionally numerate and not necessarily also for the many illiterates and innumerate citizens of the country. Yet, many South African slack basic literacy and numeracy skills that restricts them from participating in many aspects of life.
In 1949, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation or “UNESCO” established the generalised functionality of literacy. It noted that literacy, including an ability to read and write, was a basic human right. UNESCO also came up with a workable definition to differentiate between those people who have literacy skills and illiterates, while also distinguishing the various levels in between. This was at the General Conference of the UNESCO in 1978 and the definition is as follows:
“A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his/her everyday life. A person is illiterate who cannot with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his/her everyday life. A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his/her group and community and also for enabling him/her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his/her own and the community’s development. A person is functionally illiterate who cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him/her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his/her own and the community’s development.”
LITERACY FOR INCLUSION
Basic adult literacy training enables people to access important information
There are many ways that South Africans usually spoil their votes in the election. People accidentally spoil their vote by writing their name across the many parties listed on the ballot paper. They also circle or complete the box or place their mark across more than one party on the ballot paper. Moreover, people will sometimes comment on the ballot paper, or write words, such as “yes” or “no”, in the box that they have selected, as opposed to only making an “x”. Another common mistake that results in a spoiled vote is when people deliberately select more than one box on the ballot. The fact that mistakes such as these are still being made at the polling stations means that that there are many people who still do not understand the voting process. This is despite the wealth of voting information that is made available to the public ahead of the elections.
While more voter education is required to avoid spoiled votes in the future, a longer-term solution involves equipping people with basic literacy and basic numeracy skills so that they are able to easily access and understand public information that will help them improve their lives.
Adult basic education and training or “ABET” programmes help people complete their basic education, which includes basic English literacy and basic numeracy skills. English is the official language of business, learning and politics and numeracy enables critical thinking, another vital skill in any democracy.
Adult basic education and training or “ABET” has remained an important means of addressing South Africa’s very high illiteracy rate. In 2019, the South African adult illiteracy rate was 12%. While this is an improvement of 7,1-million percentage points over the past decade, 4,4-million South African adults are still illiterate. Worryingly, South Africa’s illiteracy rate does not lag far ahead of the global average of 14%.
Functional literacy and the various levels of literacy
According to the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or “UNESCO”, functional literacy includes the practical skill set that is required to read, write and perform maths-related tasks in daily life.
It classifies literacy according to the following levels:
1) Below Basic Literacy includes the ability to read and write words in languages, such as English, and numbers in very simple documents. For example, people who have below basic literacy skills are able to easily identify information on a chart; sign a form; and add a rand amount to a deposit slip.
2) Basic Literacy is the ability to perform simple skills to understand short texts in languages, such as English. People who have basic literacy skills are, for example, able to read a pamphlet; use a TV guide; and compare ticket prices.
3) Intermediate Literacy is the ability to perform challenging skills to understand long texts in languages, such as English. People who have intermediate skills are, for example, able to reference information; summarise a long article; as well as place an order and calculate the cost.
4)Proficient Literacy is the ability to perform creative and critical thinking skills to understand comprehensive or complex texts in languages, such as English. People who are proficient in literacy are able to compare viewpoints in editorials; interpret statistical graphs; and measure and calculate the costs of food items per kilogram.
Functional numeracy and the various levels of numeracy
Numeracy is the knowledge, skills, behaviours and inclinations that people need to use maths in a broad range of situations. It involves recognising and understanding the role of maths in the world. They also have the tendencies and capacities to use maths knowledge and skills decisively.
The levels of basic maths skills include:
- Maths below Level 1. People with these basic numbers skills are able to undertake simple tasks that involve the use of maths. For example, they include counting and sorting, as well performing basic maths processes with whole numbers and money.
- Maths at Entry-level 2. People with these basic numbers skills are able to undertake simple one-step processes that involve maths-related content that is clear and contains limited text in languages, such as English. For example, people with these basic numbers skills can count and sort; perform basic maths-related processes; understand simple percentages; as well as locate and identify simple, common graphical or spatial representations.
- Maths at Entry Level 3. People with maths skills at this level are able to understand information that has been relayed via numbers. Their basic numbers skills also enable them to understand symbols, as well as diagrams and charts for different applications that have been expressed in graphic, numerical and written forms in various ways. For example, their basic numbers skills enable them to divide two digits by one digit and understand remainders, as well as compare weights using standard units. However, people with these basic numbers skills may not be able to comprehend price labels or pay household bills.
- Maths at a Functional skills Level 1. People with these basic numbers skills are able to understand straightforward maths-related information that is used in different applications. This is in addition to being able to independently select relevant information expressed in graphic, numerical and written forms. People with these basic numbers skills are able to calculate simple percentages and convert units of measure. However, people with these basic numbers skills will not be able to understand their pay slips.
- Maths at a Functional skills Level 2. People with basic numbers skills at this level are able to understand maths-related information that is used in different applications. Moreover, they can independently select and compare relevant information from a variety of graphic, numerical and written forms. They may not be able to compare the cost of products and services or calculate a household budget.
ADULT BASIC EDUCATION AND TRAINING IN A DEMOCRACY
Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training gives citizens a voice
It is not only in politics where people who do not have basic literacy and basic numeracy skills do not have their voice heard. For example, many women in rural areas of developing countries of the world remain oppressed simply because they lack a basic education, including numeracy and literacy skills. Cultures, traditions and patriarchal systems in these areas restrict them from gaining an education, including basic literacy and basic numeracy skills. Worryingly, gender disparity in youth literacy is prevalent in almost one in five countries of the world.
Illiteracy also contributes to unemployment. People who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills struggle to participate in the economy. In instances where they are employed, they will earn significantly less than those people who are proficient in literacy and numeracy. Their livelihoods are also increasingly threatened by a changing economy that relies more heavily on advanced skills sets. This has also fuelled unemployment among citizens, including young adults and women who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills.
In this way, illiteracy also promotes exploitation. People who are marginalised because of their lack of basic literacy skills and basic numeracy skills will resort to various methods of exploitation to feed themselves and their families. This is especially true for illiterate women in rural areas of developing countries.
Due to a lack of literacy and numeracy skills that hinders people from securing employment or enabling them to meaningfully participate in the economy, they are also stuck in a poverty trap.
However, a major concern is how a lack of education, including basic literacy skills and basic numeracy skills, impacts future generations, fuelling further illiteracy in the country. Parents who are illiterate and innumerate are unable to assist their children with their academic work. They are also unable to impart a passion for education and learning to their children to help break the cycle of illiteracy.
A new study has also recently demonstrated that people with inadequate health literacy had a 50% higher mortality rate over five years than people with adequate reading skills. This is because a lack of literacy and numeracy skills impairs people’s ability to obtain critical information about their health and can dramatically shorten their lives
ADULT LITERACY AND ADULT NUMERACY TRAINING SPECIALIST
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