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City’s vibrant libraries celebrate the International Literacy Day in a context of advancing the literacy agenda for sustainable development and peaceful societies

By Johannes Masenya, Assistant Director and Gabriel Mashabela, Senior Librarian.

City of Johannesburg’ public libraries are dedicated to making universal literacy a reality through various literacy programmes aimed at eradicating all forms of illiteracy and stigmatisation of illiterate people. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been working to realise the vision of literacy for all since 1946 in the belief that improved literacy skills drive the right to education, sustainable development, reduce poverty and expand life opportunities. Since 1967, International Literacy Day (ILD) takes place on the 08th of September every year across the globe to remind the public of the significance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.  The World Literacy Foundation declares illiteracy is costing the South African economy R119.03 billion as approximately 3 million people struggle to read, write, and perform basic maths.

ILD 2023 was celebrated under the theme, “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies”. Public libraries contribute positively towards the realization of SDG4 on quality education and promotion of lifelong learning, as well as affecting literacy programmes to construct more inclusive, peaceful, and sustainable societies.

In the context of ILD 2023 celebrations in the City’s public libraries, Noordgesig Library celebrated World Literacy day on the 08th September 2023. An acclaimed, eminent and renowned author, filmmaker, writer, director and executive producer, Mr Clarence Hamilton joined Noordgesig Library in the celebration. In his keynote, he reminded the local community of the importance of literacy and encouraged the use of libraries for social; individual and human development. As the author of Good Morning, Fish, he donated copies of his book to the library.  Also, ILD 2023 coincided with the Region B inter-school literacy programme finals hosted at Blackheath Library, and Northwest Christian Primary took 1st place. Furthermore, Region G Libraries hosted its first-ever Literacy and Numeracy quiz at Lenasia Ext. 3 on the 07th of September 2023. The competition was won by Al Aqsa Ex.1 school. It should be noted that most libraries in various Regions hosted literacy activities and programmes including Florida Library; Orlando East Library; Riverlea library (05/09/23) and Diepsloot Library (07/09/23) respectively.


Public libraries provide a foundation for pragmatically complex illiteracy challenges among community members and learners by framing literacy in the context of functional and digital literacy and information accessibility. Over the last two decades, literacy programmes such as Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET), digital literacy, Battle of the Books and Story Skirmish reading development programmes aligned to Target 4.6 of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) summarised as follows: “By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults… achieve literacy and numeracy” were implemented to address key education and functional literacy issues. Moreover, these transformative programmes are intended to instil the culture of learning and reading, promote social cohesion, and weaken the reproduction of social inequality.


According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 774 million adults still cannot read or write, and two-thirds (493 million) of them are women. Labour Market Intelligence reports that nearly 4 million adults are functionally illiterate in South Africa, despite remarkable progress in the concerted efforts to eradicate illiteracy. The City has a network of approximately ninety (90) library facilities spread across seven (7) regions catering to library patrons with various library services and programmes which are consistent with the advancement of the universal literacy agenda, as well as achieving the targeted 90% literacy rate by 2030.


According to City’s Growth and Development Strategy (GDS) 2040, there are more than 3 million who are “not in employment, education, or training’ (NEET). Libraries working in collaboration with its strategic partners support Target 4.4 of SDG4 which states, “By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills… for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship” by offering techno-literacy training (skills development). Mpendulo (2023) affirms that digital literacy has become a priority in the digital economy as part of lifelong learning and personal development of all communities, with a special focus on young people with NEET status to promote peaceful and sustainable societies. It could be suggested that public libraries re-position their programmes to integrate ICT skills that are universally important for the world of work, which could be acquired outside school settings.


Extrapolating from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021 results, it is estimated that 81% of grade 4 cannot read for meaning in any language, while the results of the 2023 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel have shown that a country is going backwards in the fundamental unit of educational literacy. Researchers stressed an equitable provision of reading resources and promoting reading in African languages. In the environment of economic stutters, poly-crisis and budgetary constraints, the Library and Information Services directorate has spent approximately R 21 million in the last financial year on the procurement of information resources to support educational outcomes, reading strategies and plans, and strengthen performance in reading among learners and community members.


An application of a six-week fine amnesty period during the South African Library Week is a social justice issue aimed at eliminating a financial burden on disadvantaged communities. In view of this assertion, LIS believes that the removal of barriers that block people from accessing library services/ books fosters reading and could improve low literacy rates. Literacy for all children, youth and adults is still an unaccomplished goal and an ever-moving target. However, the nascent broadband infrastructure underpinned by the installation of fibre optic cables throughout the city accompanied by free public Wi-Fi, and strengthened by the ubiquity of smartphones creates an environment for improved literacy rates.

GDS 2040 envisions providing services that will contribute to improved literacy, skills and lifelong learning and bridging the digital divide. Recently, in view of the digital transformation programme, LIS introduced the digital and reading development programme referred to as the Mobireadathon to inculcate reading culture among high school learners using mobile devices and reduce digital inequality.


In conclusion, change management interventions, reading development strategy and digital transformation strategy aimed at improving reading for meaning and literacy skills should focus on early childhood development and African home language development, as well as embracing emerging technologies for quality education. Leading education researchers, Spaull and Carel claim there has been no improvement in literacy since 2011. City’s libraries are on track to successfully eradicate illiteracy within decades because its “Marshall Plan for reading and literacy” is similar to what Japan’s 1872 literacy strategy, that “there must be no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person”. Hence, “leaving no one behind” is one of the principles of Agenda 2030 to improve basic literacy skills adopted by public libraries.



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