For official purposes, the Department of Education has defined ABET as follows:

Adult basic education and training is the general conceptual foundation towards lifelong learning and development, comprising of knowledge, skills and attitudes

required for social, economic and political participation and transformation applicable to a range of contexts. ABET is flexible, developmental and targeted at the specific needs of particular audiences and, ideally, provides access to nationally recognised certificates.

The concept of ABET is uniquely South African. In the English-speaking world, ABE means Adult Basic Education. South Africa added the T, for Training in the policy initiatives of the early 1990s. The adoption of ABET was hotly contested for a time by those who believed in the power of the alternative, non-formal approaches to adult education. The reasons for adopting the term fell into two main groups.



1930’s - Driven by mission schools, church groups and the Communist Party

1946 - legislation to support and "organise" night schools

1950’s - Nationalist Government undermines night schools

1966 - Establishment of Operations Upgrade

1970’s - Centres of concern in local churches, first government night schools established, many NGOs established – Project Literacy, Learn & Teach, ELP, USWE, CEP, etc.

Unions begin to look at more effective programmes.

1989 - Most English language universities establish adult literacy units or departments within the faculty of Education.


1990’s - Boom time

IEB sets first adult exams

Massive injections of foreign and local funding (JET in particular)

Policy work eventually endorsed and the NQF with a path for life long learning and RPL


1994 - ABET prominent in White Paper on education.

ABET listed as presidential lead project in the RDP, BUT one of 2 projects

to receive no special allocation

Donors begin to switch to bilateral funding.

  1. Publication of official interim guideline by nDoE
  2. Ithuteng campaign launched

    State takes the driving seat

  3. IEB adult exams at high point (60 000 learners, 50% industry, 50% NGOs)

Closure of Learn & Teach heralds decline in NGO sector

1997 Government publishes MYIP

ABET leads the way in developing NQF standards and SAQA standards


University of Natal undertakes first survey of ABET in SA

  1. Collapse of the National Literacy Cooperation (NLC)
  2. Publication of University of Natal survey RIFT with nDoE
  3. UNISA sets up portfolio based assessments as an alternative to the IEB

    Ikhwelo Project initiated by the nDoE

  4. Publication of ABET Act – focus on management of PALC’s (night schools) ABET features in Minister Asmal’s call to renewal, Tirisano

SANLI launched by Minister

Some publishers pulp ABET materials for lack of a market

Skills Development Act – new hope

2001 Collapse of AETASA

Winding up of IAAB

CoastCare launched by Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism –

mix of livelihoods and ABET training

First nDoE exams at Level 4

  1. Some SETAs initiate projects aimed at eventual ABET provision

Some SANLI Projects take off, partnership with UNISA

Establishment of Umalusi – to quality assure GET and FET bands including ABET.



Low levels of demand, occasional responsiveness to programmes that touch the nerve of need, high drop out rates of learners and educators, all suggest that the felt need for ABET falls far below the figures for those who might be thought to need ABET.

There are probably between 3 and 4 million adults who can scarcely write their names and addresses. But these adults are generally older women in rural areas with little need for literacy. Their limited literacy needs are satisfied by networks of communication, and they may well experience others’ view that they need literacy as intrusive. However, they have knowledge, information and, above all, access needs. "Literacy" is valued when it is linked to assistance with things like home care for AIDS sufferers, or caring for orphaned grandchildren, reading the bible, or securing pensions more easily.

Far closer to a felt need for ABET are the adults with inadequate formal education. Since many industries despair of the entry skills of those with School leaving Certificates, the idea of inadequate formal education is problematic. However, if the figure for those with less than eight years schooling is taken as a guide for ABET need, then there are at least 7 million adults in this category. There are, predictably, higher proportions of adults in this category in the poorest provinces (Eastern Cape, KZN, Limpopo), but even in the best favoured educationally – the Western Cape – there is still a high number. Gender distribution is fairly equal overall, with more women at potential levels of need in rural areas, and more men in urban areas. The strongest felt need is probably among urban and informal settlement work seekers, or among workers eager to gain greater job security. Both of these groups are almost certain to prioritise hard skills rather than "ABE".

This appendix is taken from Prof. John Aitchison’s report for the ABET on Trial Conference, November 2000. His information is based on a series of surveys of ABET in South Africa through the late 1990s….

"How many people are potentially in need of ABET?

Virtually everybody is now using the figures (derived from the 1996 General Population Census and the annual October Household Surveys) that of the slightly more than 26 million adults (people aged 15 and over) about 12 to 13 million of them have less than a full (grade 9) general education, about 7.5 to 8.5 million to these have less than grade 7 (often used as a minimum education level indicator of functional literacy) and about 3 to 4 million people have had no schooling at all. However these figures tend to be used rather loosely so people will often talk about "12 million illiterates" when they should say "12 million people with an incomplete general education". It is however permissible to talk about 3 or 4 million illiterates or 7.5 million functional illiterates.

When examined over several years, these surveys suggest that there has been little change in the number or percentage of functionally illiterate adults. There has been no "breaking the back of illiteracy" in the 90s.

Variations in basic education levels within the categories of so-called race, sex, and geographical location remain. "Race", that is, the groups apartheid divided the people of South Africa into, is still the single most powerful variable linked to educational levels in South Africa. Taking "no schooling" as an indication of complete illiteracy, about 24% of African adults aged 20 and over are totally illiterate, 10% of Coloureds, 7% of Indians and only 1% of Whites. The difference between men and women total illiterates, though present (men 41%, women 58%) is relatively small (particularly when the figures are adjusted for the smaller number of men in the population).

There are also considerable variations among the nine provinces in South Africa. Some provinces have high numbers of people in need of ABET though they form a relatively small percentage of the population (as in Gauteng) whilst other provinces may have small numbers but high percentages (as in Mpumalanga). Other provinces have both high numbers and high percentages (as in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal)."


The State:

State provision of adult education commenced in the mid 1970s. It was motivated at first by the counter-revolutionary desire to pre-empt emerging Black Consciousness efforts linked to the Freirean idea of Conscientisation.

Night schools were gradually established in existing schools in all parts of the country. Their curriculum was essentially based on the second chance model and strongly reflected the school curriculum. However, in basic education, the methods, teacher training and materials of literacy mission movements were used. In the 1980s the DET developed its own literacy courses and materials for adults. Public examinations were offered at Standard 5 (now Grade 7), Standard 8 and Standard 10 (matric).

Though located in school buildings, the Adult Centres were run autonomously, with Centre Principals of their own. This led to occasional conflict between the two institutions, something which still causes problems.

The teachers were, with few exceptions, schoolteachers for whom the adult night school work was done as a double shift. They were seldom if ever specifically trained – or re-trained – for adult education. Short courses in literacy methods were usually around 3 – 5 days long.

Attendance for learners was essentially free. In spite of major efforts at renewal in the new era in South Africa, in which the adult night schools have been named Public Adult Learning Centres (PALCs), many features, many principals and some teachers are the same as in the old order. A shift in policy has lead to the staffing of these centres wherever possible by newly graduated teachers without jobs.

Major changes have been those in curriculum requirements – shifting to a mix of Curriculum 2005 and NQF requirements – backed by a number of in-service programmes aimed at familiarizing educators with OBE thinking and practices. The ABET Act is largely concerned with the governance of PALCs. Innovations in the Act are the introduction of Governing Bodies structured similarly to the school governing bodies, an element of potential autonomy in fund raising and management, and a stronger obligation than before on the provisional Members of Executive Councils (MECs) for Education to support ABET.

With their many inadequacies, PALCs have nonetheless had many advantages: secure budgets, paid educators, learning centres with basic facilities near to the people, solid learning paths along routes reasonably understood by the community, and organisational structures. PALCs are most intensely used for learners taking a second chance at matric.


Commerce and industry, notably the mines, have a long track record in adult literacy work and ABET. From the 1950s at least there were literacy programmes in the mines and other large industries. In the 1970s workers’ literacy started to be taken more seriously by management in some contexts, and by the 1980s this was being serviced by a handful of commercial training organisations (CEP, BESA)– now all defunct – dedicated to literacy work with an increasing focus on English Second Language. The relatively expensive failure of a number of big investments in literacy work aroused the interests of the labour unions, and contributed to the dissatisfaction that led eventually to management and unions espousing the idea of a NQF.

Industry programmes have at times been models of quality learning, using well-trained practitioners, state-of-the-art instructional materials and programmes and external assessment by the IEB. However, although industry centres have the best chance to integrate education and training, very few have even thought of doing this. Literacy, Communication in English and Numeracy/Maths remain the stock in trade of the curriculum. Programmes are generally isolated from the workplace and are very much add-ons rather than related to core business. The working of the Skills Development Act and Levy may start changing this, especially through the structuring of whole NFQ qualifications.

Civil Society:

The Public Benefit Sector (NGOs, CBOs, churches, etc.) for a long time led the way in advocacy, practitioner training and the development of learning support materials. For about 20 years they were carried on a wave of anti-apartheid/new South Africa funding from international donors, and even internally, by South African employers through the Joint Education Trust.

By the time the NLC collapsed, it was becoming clear that the re-direction of donor funding through bilateral agreements with a now legitimate state was causing a funding drought for PBOs. The central and smaller local NGOs alike started dying. The first noted ending was the closure of Learn & Teach in 1996. The ending of the Joint Education Trust as a funder in 2000 was a final blow to many. The hundreds of organisations dwindled into tens.

Note: These are estimates based upon Harley et al (1996) and Aitchison et al (2000). What this summary indicates is that the overall number of learners served by ABET has not dramatically changed over the last five or six years.

THE IKHWELO PROJECT (Department of Education Poverty Alleviation Programme)


The Ikhwelo Project has been initiated as a response to providing support to the Eastern Cape (EC) and Limpopo Province (LP) Department of Education (DOE) in the area of adult education and training (ABET), in the implementation of a pilot project in the two elective sub-fields, Agriculture and Small, Medium and Micro-Enterprise (SMME) over a period of 36 months.

The goal of the project is to implement a pilot project in Agriculture and SMME that would provide access to the General Education and Training for adult learners to enhance their social and economic capacity.

The project commenced operations in April 1999, and is to complete its work by April 2003.


At the end of April 2001, there were 25 centres operating in the Limpopo Province and 20 in the Eastern Cape. Most Ikhwelo learners wrote summative examinations in Agriculture and SMME at ABET Level 4 (NQF 1) during October 2001. In the Eastern Cape, 206 learners wrote the SMME exam and 194 the AAAT (applied agriculture and agricultural technology), exam. In the Limpopo Province 347 learners wrote the Agriculture paper and 350 the SMME paper. In both provinces approximately 40% of learners passed their exams – this is above the national average for other learning areas.

Co-operative Agreement between USAID, DOE & Project Literacy

Primary purpose of the Ikhwelo Pilot Project: assist the Department of Education to implement affective ABET programmes in AGRICULTURE and SMME at the GETC Level through the following




44 centres were established at which approximately 3 000 ABET Learners acquired knowledge and skills in Agricultural & SMME.


500 part-time ABET Educators were trained in Agricultural & SMME. While many still remain in the Project, others have found permanent employment in the education field or have started their own small businesses.



44 Centre Managers were trained in educational management and resource mobilization. Many have obtained additional funding and skills training from other sources in order to enhance their Centre’s business ventures.


Centre Governing Bodies received governance training and participated in Strategic Planning Workshops to ensure the sustainability of their SMME and/or Agricultural ventures.


In terms of poverty relief, job creation and personal empowerment, the project has achieved reasonable success as more than half the Ikhwelo Centres are currently involved in some form of business venture.


Dithothwaneng Centre - Dithothwaneng is in Region 6, in the Apel district, close to Groblersdal and Polokwane (Pietersburg), in the Limpopo Province.


SMME skills enable learners to practice effective business management processes.

A viable bakery project funded by the DOH. Learners supply bread and rolls to local

and neighbouring communities.

Learners are involved in jam making, juice processing and sewing ventures.

A fenced vegetable garden has been established with the help of the local DOA.

Produce is sold to local and neighbouring communities.

A tuck shop to serve the needs of near-by schools and the local community.

Learners, educators and CGB members deal pro-actively with challenges, such as

contributing money to purchase bottles and caps for juice processing.

The centre shares facilities with the local senior school and has a good working

relationship with the Principal and staff.

The University of Columbia Adult Education Unit has set up a small computer centre

and an electronic link between the two ventures is in the pipeline.

Tabitha Mogosoana, an adult learner from this centre, has been chosen to represent

Ikhwelo, Limpopo Province and South Africa the International Literacy Week 2002

Festivities in Washington DC during September 2002.


Previously illiterate Adult Learners can now sign their names, count money, grow

vegetables and operate sewing machines. They produce and sell traditional clothing,

beadwork, knitted articles, grass baskets & mats and simple wooden articles to the

local community and tourists.

The beadwork is of a very high standard. The most experienced beaders will shortly

attend an advanced beading training workshop plus a business and marketing skills

course. The course provider contracts rural women to make beaded items for the

national/international corporate world, thus enabling rural adults to convert cultural

skills into viable business ventures.

Port St John learners must be congratulated on their achievements - this Ikhwelo

Centre operates from a small piece of land perched on top of a hill overlooking the

Indian Ocean. Lessons in a variety of learning areas are held in one small room that

lacks adequate classroom furniture.


Ø Educators and Adult Learners’ participated in the Ikhwelo International Conference – The Link between ABET and Poverty Alleviation – October 2002.

Ø Speakers from the DOE, Project Literacy, Ikhwelo Centre Managers, Educators and Learners participated in a panel discussion entitled "GROWING MINDS WHILE FILLING PURSES".


During this discussion Ikhwelo Educators and Adult Learners spoke about Ikhwelo’s impact on their lives as well as those of their families and communities.

Ø Learners and educators from Ikhwelo Centres in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo Province used the Conference to sell their products. Goods on offer included traditional clothing, Venda cloths, beadwork, grass mats, pottery, candles, juices, jams and preserves.







  1. ABET is a human right
  2. The South African Constitution states … Everyone has the right

    1. to a basic education, including adult basic education; and
    2. to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

    [Source: The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, Chapter 2: Bill of Rights 29(1) and (2)]

  3. Illiteracy and under-education are still major development issues in South Africa
  4. Total number of adults age 15 and over 26,3million (100%)

    Adults with less than grade 7 education 8,5 million (32%)

    Adults with no schooling 4,2 million (16%)

    [Source: 1996 General Population Census]

  5. Adult literacy campaigns do not eradicate illiteracy
  6. Tanzania and Nicaragua had world-renowned adult literacy campaigns, yet their current adult illiteracy rates are:

    Tanzania 32,3%

    Nicaragua 34,3%

    Cuba had a relatively successful adult literacy campaign and the illiteracy rate is now under 4,3%. However there were less than 1 million illiterate adults in Cuba at the time of the campaign. [Source: UNESCO World data on education – website]

    Illiteracy is the result of a number of factors including lack of schooling, poor quality schooling, poverty, social and geographic isolation, community disruption due to violence, crime and substance abuse. Many of these factors are present in South African society.

  7. Compensatory ABET will be needed in South Africa in the future because many children do not attend school
  8. The ABET field is in crisis due to a lack of funding
  9. Funding to the ABET NGO sector has drastically declined since 1996 as major funders began to direct their grants mainly through government and "representative" NGO bodies such as the National Literacy Cooperation (NLC) {and redirected funding to other causes}: e.g.

    Rockefeller Brothers: ABET funding: $281000 in 1994, $100000 in 1999

    Joint Education Trust: ABET funding R33,4 m in 1995, ceased in 1999.

    [Source: University of Natal survey of adult basic education and training: South Africa, February 2000 page xix, 82-86]

  10. Government spending on ABET is inadequate
  11. "Of course I am concerned about the inadequacy of public funding for ABET, including the National Literacy Campaign. But in my Call to Action document last July, I made it clear that public funds are at present insufficient for this purpose."

    [Source: Professor Kader small, Minister of Education, Reply to Debate, Vote 8, National Assembly, 14 March 2000]

    Literacy was the only Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) lead project that received no money at all.

    [Source: University of Natal survey of adult basic education and training: South Africa, February 2000 (page 12,13)]

  12. The policy of the state in funding ABET is unclear
  13. ABET is included in a national budget item called "non-formal education", which also includes further education for adults and youth and other non-formal education like sewing and carpentry.

    The state spends less than 1% (about 0,8% of the education budget on "non-formal education’. Most of the money in this ‘non-formal education’ budget is spent on young people trying a second time to gain a formal FETC (matric) qualification.

    [Source: University of Natal survey of adult basic education and training: South Africa, February 2000 (page 12,13)]

  14. Adult literacy educators must be properly trained
  15. A study of the relevant literature has revealed that the literacy tutor is the single most important factor in the success of the programme.

    [Source: Wydeman, JL and Kamper, GD. 1990. A literacy development strategy for South Africa: Possibilities and limitations. HSRC]

    Adult educators need to understand the cognitive processes by which people become literate and must be able to use a variety of approaches appropriately.

    [Source: Motala,S. 1992. The Training of educators for adult basic education in South Africa – some current issues and policy implications. Paper prepared by NEPI ABE sub-group]


  16. Skills required by ABET practitioners have been negotiated, documented and formalized into national qualifications and unit standards

Nationally recognised qualifications and unit standards for ABET Practitioners have been produced at NQF levels 4,5 and 6. these have been widely endorsed and were formally registered on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) in October 2000 by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). [Source: See SAQA website: www.saqa.org.za]