If you make it to the end of this opinion piece and understand what you’ve read, consider yourself lucky.

Every day thousands of children across South Africa learn to read. But thousands also struggle to understand the content of what they’re reading because books are few and far between, teachers are not able to give them individual attention because classes are big,and children often don’t have the means to practise reading at home.

This is borne out by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, where South Africa was placed last in the assessment of nearly 320 000 children in 50 countries. Of the 12 810 grade four pupils from 293 South African schools, 78% were not able to reach the lowest benchmark — compared with 4% internationally.

In many poorer schools, teachers do their best as dozens of children huddle eagerly around dog-eared books, committing them to memory but not necessarily comprehending the story. I was privileged. Our classes were small, we were allowed to take books home and read them over and over again, and in the evenings my parents had time to go through the books with me to make sure I understood what the story was about. But that’s not the case for the vast majority of people, and we’re starting to see that in the workforce —for those who are lucky enough to be able to enter the workforce.

This may seem like a bleak picture, especially on Heritage Day, which is usually a day of celebration, but we need to recognise our country’s obstacles if we are to overcome them. And the timing couldn’t be better. Heritage Day falls in September, as does World Literacy Day. The best way we can celebrate our heritage is to make sure that everyone can prosper by improving literacy and comprehension.

So this Heritage Day, let’s also think of the future. The various levels of government have their focus areas, though with limited capacity and budget. Change is happening,but we need to create our own opportunities if we really want to see a marked difference in the near future. It is imperative that more businesses offer training programmes for underprivileged youth, for example.

Many young people are matriculating without the grades or the finances for tertiary education. We need to boost them to become future business leaders. As individuals, we can help by supporting nongovernmental organisations that are geared towards education.

That is why the Relate Trust chose to support the Mandela Library Project — a nongovernmental organisation that builds container libraries in identified at-risk schools. This gives pupils access to hundreds more books and provides additional impetus to read. The libraries are also available to the greater community. Since 2011, the Mandela Library Project has placed more than 100 libraries in schools. Each library typically services 1 000 children a year and remains active for at least 15 years. So one library can influence up to 15 000 children.

Since the introduction of these libraries, pupils have shown improved English language skills and academic marks. At Thuto Ke Tsela Primary School in the Free State, for example, the Literacy Annual National Assessment result for grade three pupils in their home language was 43.5% in 2012. A year after the container library opened, the level rose to 49.5%. Likewise, grade six pupils’literacy rate rose from 25% to 37.6%. This doesn’t just mean the pupils understand more words. It means their comprehension is better, which means their ability to learn is improved. When you open up someone’s ability to learn, you open up endless opportunities.

So this Heritage Day, let’s think of the bigger picture and work together to ensure that all children read and understand these stories properly, so they can carve out the future they want for themselves.

This article was first published by Mail & Guardian on 12 September 2018.