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Does Zimbabwe have a higher literacy rate than SA?

South Africa is set to hold national elections in 2019, a year the ruling African National Congress marks its 107th anniversary.

Radio 702 talk show host Bruce Whitfield spoke to Bonang Mohale, head of Business Leadership South Africa, about what he expects from the party’s election manifesto at its launch on 12 January.

Mohale said he was looking at six issues. One was education, which he described as “the most tragic story of the last 25 years”.   

He said Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, “boasts of 94% literacy rate. South Africa’s is nowhere near that.”

Do statistics back up his claim?

Education experts previously told Africa Check that comparing literacy rates can be difficult, as countries often have different definitions of literacy.

Zimbabwe’s most recent labour force survey estimated that 97,6% of people older than 15 were literate in 2014. These were people who said they had completed Grade 3.

South Africa’s 2017 general household survey estimated that 94,3% of people older than 20 were literate. But these were people who said they could read and write with “no difficulty” or “some difficulty”.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) calculates its own estimates of literacy.

Its latest estimate for both countries is for 2014. That year South Africa’s literacy rate was 94,1% for people 15 years and older.

Unesco used data from Zimbabwe’s 2014 Multiple Indicators Cluster and Health Survey to estimate the country’s literacy rate as 88.7% of people 15 years and older.

The data for Zimbabwe was based on a reading assessment – not self-reporting. A reading test is likely to produce a lower rate, Unesco says.

Literacy rate comparisons should be made with caution, as there are differences in the definitions used and the way people are surveyed.

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