A convergence of literacy and digital skills acquisition is the key to a resilient youth

To support critical skills development in young people, we need to meet them where they’re at. And that is on their mobile phones.

More than 60% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in South Africa are unemployed[1]. While made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, youth unemployment is not a new story. Getting to the end of this multifaceted saga is going to take time. How can this time be used productively to create both immediate and long-term benefits for our youth? Which skills will help young people survive the uncertainty of the present and prepare them to thrive in the future?

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” – Margaret Fuller

The answers lie at the nexus of literacy, digital skills acquisition and creating with young people, rather than for them.

The benefits of reading for pleasure are numerous. Reading develops our ability to think imaginatively, enhances critical thinking, and helps us see things from different perspectives. It elevates us from what is and offers insight into what could be.

Research[2] suggests that reading literary fiction helps enhance our ability to keep an open mind, to be more creative, and to be more at ease with competing narratives – skills needed by youth to navigate volatility today and excel in future work environments. On the subject of work, self-reported literacy has been shown[3] to be a statistically significant predictor of being employed.

However, full functional literacy rates in South Africa are low. Functional literacy refers to the practical reading and writing skill set needed to function effectively in society. And as for a culture of reading and writing for pleasure – equally lacking.

The 2016 National Reading Survey[4] shows that South Africa is book-poor with almost 60% of households not having a single book to read for pleasure. Conversely, South Africa and particularly the youth population, is mobile phone-rich. Instead of trying to get more books into homes, we should focus on getting relatable stories into young people’s hands.

International Literacy Day, 8 September 2021, calls for us to uphold the right to literacy and foster the acquisition of literacy and digital skills by youth and adults for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

“Build bridges, not walls.” –  Suzy Kassem.

How do we do this in South Africa? Through the creation of contextually relevant, exciting, language-diverse content, easily accessed via mobile phones.

To ignite a youth culture of reading and writing for pleasure, South Africa’s youth need to be the fuel. The voices of young people should inform the creation of fit for purpose digital literature offerings. And multiple interrelated actors must build the bridge to enable large-scale accessibility.

South African NGO, FunDza, creates and publishes materials that aim to spark a love of reading. Their mobile-friendly and data-light platform – fundza.mobi – is accessed daily by thousands of teens and young adults who had not previously identified as readers. FunDza publishes and celebrates writing in all of South Africa’s official languages.

Puku Children’s Literature Foundation was recently awarded this year’s UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize.[5] Puku runs creative writing workshops for aspiring young writers in African languages. They use digital technologies to promote children’s literature in South Africa’s indigenous languages.

A Moleskin Foundation initiative, WikiAfrica Education, uses open, accessible knowledge online to unlock creativity and enhance agency in African youth.

Each of these organisations is a significant contributor to an exciting new story for South Africa’s youth.

In the words of Dr Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”


[1] http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=14415

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247163935_Opening_the_Closed_Mind_The_Effect_of_Exposure_to_Literature_on_the_Need_for_Closure

[3] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1727649

[4] http://sabookcouncil.co.za/wp-content/uploads/Final-Report-NRS-2016.pdf

[5] https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-awards-international-literacy-prizes-innovative-projects-boosting-literacy-covid-times

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