Date: May 17, 2023 Type: Country:

Youth are bearing the brunt of the government’s failures

In response to the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) release of the outcome of South Africa’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021 assessment yesterday, Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa, said:

“The finding that over 80% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning is shocking and illustrates that the government continues to fail to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to basic education for all, a right that has been recognised by the Constitutional Court of South Africa as immediately realisable.

“If this is not a wake-up call, we don’t know what is. South Africa’s education system continues to be broken and unequal, risking snuffing out the potential bright futures of children across the country.

“We acknowledge that the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are deep but this does not excuse the DBE from tackling the issue head on by putting human rights at the heart of its policies, plans and responses and by making progress reports publicly available. This was already a problem before the pandemic, and has just been exacerbated further by the pandemic. The DBE must develop a time-bound, measurable and transparent plan to respond to this crisis.

“This is about the future of South Africa. The latest unemployment statistics, also published yesterday, show that 36.1% of 15 to 24 year olds are not in employment, education or training. The report also shows that the higher the level of education, the lower the chance of unemployment. If the government wants young people to participate in the economy – to contribute to the future of the country – it needs to ensure that every child, no matter their background, is given a quality basic education, and a chance at the opportunities an education can bring.

“Young people should no longer bear the brunt for the government’s failures,” Mohamed added.



The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international assessment and research project designed to measure reading achievement at the fourth-grade level, as well as school and teacher practices related to instruction. It is administered every five years.

PIRLS 2021 marks the fourth cycle of South Africa's participation in the study. Grade 4 learners were assessed across the 11 official languages and Grade 6 learners were assessed in English and Afrikaans.

In 2020 and 2021 Amnesty International South Africa released two reports on the state of basic education in South Africa.

The reports titled South Africa: Failing to learn the lessons? The impact of COVID-19 on a broken and unequal education system and Broken and Unequal: The state of education in South Africa both highlighted stark inequalities in the education system.

For more information or to request an interview, please contact:

Mienke Mari Steytler, Media and Communications Officer (Maternity Cover), Amnesty International South Africa: +27 (0) 64 890 9224;


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Amnesty International South Africa office, 97 Oxford Road, Saxonwold, Johannesburg, 2196