Tuesday, 06 November 2007

Legends of the literate

From the halls of government comes the story of just how low the literacy levels of this country have descended. The urban legend emerges from the Department of Welfare, but is aimed squarely at the Department of Education.

In an assessment of families who were supporting their children only with the assistance of the welfare department, it was concluded that they were often responsible for their own fates, since they had such low educational levels. Proof of this, goes the legend, lies in their applications for welfare assistance and appeals against negative decisions:

"My husband lost his job two months ago, and I haven't had any relief since."

"I have been in bed with the doctor for two weeks, and he hasn't done me any good."

The classic of its kind, however, must be: "I am very annoyed that you brand my son illiterate. This is a lie, as I was married a week before he was born."

The most remarkable aspect of this story is not what it says about literacy, but that it can seems so appropriate to South Africa. The truth is, like the many lists of bizarre language in insurance claims, this is merely a local adaptation of an internationally circulating tradition.

Legendary folklorist Jan Harold brunvand, in his book Curses! Broiled Again!, calls it The Welfare Leter, and has traced the entire collection back to at least the 1930s in the United States.

He has added the following beauty to the list:
"In accordance with your instructions, I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope."

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