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Operation Upgrade is an established non-government organisation with a history which dates back over forty years to 1966, when it was founded.  The story is one of commitment and perseverance, struggle and change, and the help of many people and supporting organisations along the way.

The first years

Operation Upgrade was started as a Christian outreach through adult literacy. During its first 25 years, Operation Upgrade developed many readers for low literate adults, written in the local languages of South Africa and in English.  Over 13 000 literacy and numeracy facilitators were trained - in courses of varying length and content -, and hundreds of volunteers organised learner classes throughout the country, using Operation Upgrade materials and facilitators.  It was an achievement which went nationally unrecognised:  adult basic education was far from being a concern for the government in power in those times, in spite of the fact that over 50% of the adult population of South Africa was estimated to be functionally illiterate.

As international understanding of adult basic education deepened and it began to be seen as a power for transformation, Operation Upgrade realised the need to change its approach to adult learning.  By the late ‘80s the time was right for change and with some courage the Operation Upgrade Board appointed new senior staff and prepared for development.
The struggle to change

During 1991 Operation Upgrade entered a period of reorientation in which it made a paradigm shift from narrow definitions of literacy to an integrated, development-focused position in adult basic education.  Over 2 500 “old” Operation Upgrade facilitators were retrained to use new methods and new materials, in the “Facilitator Development Project”.

By the beginning of 1995, there was need for yet another change.  The coming of democracy for South Africa heralded new policies in adult basic education.
Some success

This time the reorientation process was less traumatic.  A strong outcomes-based learner curriculum was designed, which incorporated the standards set by the Independent Examinations Board, and a Zulu learner workbook series for Level 1 was produced.  This was supported by facilitator guides in Zulu - a first for any ABET* NGO in the country - and the material received national approval from the National Literacy Co-operation, and the Department of Education (KwaZulu-Natal) for use in the Ithuteng Campaign. Over 2000 educators have now been trained to use the first language literacy course and its materials.  The materials are available in seven South African languages.

In another first in South Africa, Operation Upgrade started a joint venture with an educational publisher to create new adult material for learning English as an additional language.  The material is now complete.  A new, modern facilitator course to train English facilitators has been developed.

2008 was the 10th year in which Operation Upgrade trained adult basic education students from the University of South Africa (UNISA) to teach literacy.  On average Operation Upgrade trains 250 of these students every year.  Our 20-day mother-tongue literacy course is accredited by UNISA as a module in its Certificate in Adult Basic Education.

In 1996, Operation Upgrade’s thirtieth year, the organisation was finally given national recognition.  President Nelson Mandela, together with the National Department of Education, presented Operation Upgrade with the 1996 Presidential Award for Adult Basic Education and Training.  The citation read in part:

“One significant strength of Operation Upgrade is that, in its endeavour to meet new challenges, it has realised the imperative for re-evaluation, re-invention and re-structuring to ensure its effectiveness in delivery.”

During the years of its existence, Operation Upgrade has always seen the State as a strong potential provider of adult basic education.  In recognition of this, Operation Upgrade has over the years developed a very close working relationship with the then Department of Education in its home province, where Operation Upgrade has provided ABET educator support for many schoolteachers. The relationship stretches back since 1980.  The organisation has encouraged many school teachers to become ABET practitioners over the years.  Indeed, the teachers in this province have a great interest in adult basic education.  

This working relationship has been carried through by the ABET Section, a focused adult basic education unit in Department of Education.  

  • In 1996 and 1997, Operation Upgrade was part of the State Ithuteng Campaign, training teachers as adult basic education facilitators, providing learner materials and facilitator support.
  • In 2005 and 2006 Operation Upgrade was an active member of the Department’s ABET Task Team to develop a mass literacy campaign for KwaZulu-Natal, which is now operating.

Operation Upgrade has received an international award for its work in literacy from ProLiteracy Worldwide, the largest literacy organisation based in the USA, which has over 100 international partners.
New directions

Since 2003 Operation Upgrade has successfully integrated a new programme to widen the role of its literacy facilitators.  HIV and AIDS, accessing water, community health and intensive vegetable growing are new learning areas for its facilitators.  Some are already implementing community action initiatives with their literacy groups to involve them in development and social issues.

Today more than ever, Operation Upgrade sees its role as the provision of support to other adult basic education groups, to ensure that a relevant, good quality adult basic education curriculum is provided for adult learners.  This support comes through advice and encouragement, facilitator training and the supply of learner and facilitator materials.


Our current mission is to use adult literacy and adult basic education to work for social change and development.  We have a long history of providing adult literacy education and supporting other organisations which work in this field.  We work mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the home of the Zulu people.  Here adult illiteracy is high and HIV and AIDS are prevalent.

Operation Upgrade has four main functions:

  1. The support of adult basic education and literacy groups through literacy educator training, the development and supply of low-cost reading materials, literacy class monitoring and adult literacy project advice.
  2. Adult literacy program management
  3. HIV and AIDS education through adult literacy
  4. Food security through vegetable tunnels and water support, working through adult literacy groups
  5. Water support
We have a staff component of 12 people, 50 educators in our KwaNibela Project and 60 educators in the department of Labour Project.

HIV and AIDS and literacy learning

The educators in training on the HIV and AIDS course make a list of the AIDS topics they want to cover in literacy lessons.  Then in groups they plan lessons on the basis outlined above.  After the course they make their own lesson plans that incorporate some of the HIV/AIDS topics.

EMSENI Community Centre

We have set up a community centre in KwaNibela, called Emseni Community Centre. (“Emseni” means Place of Kindness.) We have built two large rondavels there, one to accommodate our staff and visitors, and one for storage.

The UNESCO Confucius Prize

“The UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy was awarded to Operation Upgrade of South Africa, for the “KwaNibela Project”, and continues the Organisation’s 40-year history of commitment and change.  Website Hosted by Pro Hosting Internet Services