Do only 14% of South Africans read books?

South Africa’s basic education minister often berates the lack of a book-reading culture among South Africans. But is the situation as dire as she suggests?

“Do you know that reading statistics show that only 14% of South Africans are readers of books?” South Africa’s basic education minister said in a video promoting reading last year.

Angie Motshekga has cited the statistic a number of times over the years. In some cases, she has pegged the figure slightly higher, at 15%.

This week, South Africa observes National Book Week. Is the situation as dire as the minister made out?

Stat from study of grade 4 pupils

The minister’s spokesman, Troy Martens, told Africa Check that the source of the claim was the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.   

“She said only 15% of South Africans are basic readers and will actually pick up a book and read,” said Martens.

But the study Martens referred to is an assessment of grade 4 pupils’ reading levels from around the world. (Note: In South Africa grade 5 pupils were assessed.) It is not an assessment of the book reading habits of South Africans.

Limited reading studies

Studies of book reading habits in South Africa are limited.

Statistics South Africa conducted a Time Use Survey in 2010 to understand how people older than 10 spend their time during a 24-hour period. The survey looked at reading but it did not differentiate between different types of reading.

A nationally representative survey of reading and book-reading behaviour of South African adults was conducted in 2006 and 2016 by the South African Book Development Council.

For the latest study, 4,000 people over the age of 16 were interviewed on their reading habits during August to September 2016.

7/10 adults read for leisure

The survey defined reading to include the reading of books, magazines and newspapers, both in print and online.

The survey found that 70.5% of the country’s population had ever read for leisure, down from 75% in 2006. Almost a third of the population (29.5%) reported never having read for leisure.  

Reading accounted for only 6% of adults’ leisure time. Those that reported reading spent an average of 4 hours per week reading.

The study found that the least likely demographics to read for leisure were:

  • black women (39%),
  • people older than 50 (39%),
  • people in rural areas (37%),
  • people who only had primary schooling (19%).
5th most popular activity

Reading was the 5th most popular leisure activity done in the month before the South African Book Development Council’s survey, with 43% of people reporting reading for leisure during that month. This was down from 65% in 2006.

The top 4 most popular leisure activities in 2016 were:

  • listening to the radio (79%),
  • watching TV, DVDs or videos (78%),
  • shopping or going to the mall (51%) and
  • socialising at home (51%).

TV watchers spent an average of 7.5 hours per week watching TV.

25% of adults read books

When reading of books is isolated from other types of reading, 25% of respondents reported reading books.

Book readers reported having read an average of 3.1 books (of any kind) in the past 6 months. The majority of book readers (27%) reported reading an average of more than 5 books during that time.

A total of 5.3 million adults in South Africa (14%) were considered “committed printed book readers” by the study – the same percentage as the 2006 study.

People described as “bookworms” maintain their reading habit, defend it against other tempting leisure activities and find new occasions to read books.

58% live in houses with no books

Just over 16 million adults in South Africa (58%) reported living in a household with no books. The remaining 42% of people lived in households with more than one book.

Just 7% of people lived in households with more than 10 books.

Conclusion: Study shows 25% of adult South Africans read books

The available research on book-reading in South Africa does not support the basic education minister’s claim that “only 14% of South Africans are readers of books”.

A 2016 study put the figure at 25% of the adult population.

Edited by Anim van Wyk

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