Original Research

Literacy matters in sustainable livelihood development among refugee adults in South Africa

Kofi P. Quan-Baffour, Lineo Rose Johnson
Reading & Writing | Vol 13, No 1 | a316 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/rw.v13i1.316 | © 2022 Kofi P. Quan-Baffour, Lineo Rose Johnson | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 May 2021 | Published: 29 April 2022

About the author(s)

Kofi P. Quan-Baffour, Department of Adult, Community and Continuing Education, School of Educational Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Lineo Rose Johnson, Department of Adult, Community and Continuing Education, School of Educational Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


Background: Political and economic upheavals in the current millennium globally have displaced millions of people, making cross-border and forced migration a reality. Many refugees are forced out of their countries and flee to other countries to find new languages with which they are not familiar. South Africa as a signatory to the 1954 UN Convention on refugees and stateless persons accepts refugees (asylum seekers) from all over the world. The displaced persons are mostly illiterate in English and the indigenous languages of their new settlement countries.

Objectives: The study was set up to investigate the socio-economic value of literacy in the lives of refugee adults in South Africa. Hence, in this article, literacy refers to the ability to read, write, calculate, communicate and function in any language with a basic understanding in one’s environment.

Method: This ethnographic qualitative study used interviews, observations and focus group meetings to explore how literacy matters in the sustainable development of entrepreneurial activities among the refugee adults and youths in South Africa. The study is grounded in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy theory and has some implications for adult literacy throughout the developing world where millions of adult refugees find themselves vulnerable.

Results: The study revealed that refugee adults learn functional literacy in English and other 11 local South African languages informally as communication skills for the survival of their small businesses and for social and economic use in their ‘adopted home’. They find it difficult to get employment in the formal sector and often use their ingenuity to create their own jobs for survival and livelihoods in informal trade and entrepreneurship.

Conclusion: The article concludes that within the public adult learning interventions by the Department of Basic Education, where literacy programmes are offered, refugees should be encouraged and supported in attending formal classes to deal with their livelihoods and small businesses for survival.


functional literacy; sustainable livelihood; communication skills; refugee adults; entrepreneurship; economic use; social use


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Crossref Citations

1. Beliefs of adults with disabilities about literacy skills’ roles on their livelihood as well as quality of life and their influence on becoming literate in Ethiopia
Temesgen Oljira Geleta, Dinke Aga Hirpa
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doi: 10.1080/2331186X.2023.2201167