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News: South African Government Websites Fail Basic Language Standards

VisibleThread, a language and content auditing company with regional offices in the U.S., Europe and Australia, reports that South African government websites fail to meet plain writing standards. The company’s Website Clarity Index analysis focused on 30-plus Provincial Government websites from the most populous provinces: Gauteng, Kwazulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

Fergal McGovern, CEO of VisibleThread said in a blog post: “In a country where the language of government is a second language for many of its citizens, poor communication will result in inefficiency and affect service delivery.”

South Africa has 11 official languages and although most South Africans can speak more than one language, English is only the fourth most spoken language. IsiZulu, IsiXhosa and Afrikaans all have more first language speakers. (Source:

VisibleThread found that only 13% of Provincial Government websites meet recommended readability standards and some fail so badly that they warrant a complete overhaul. They stated that the writing on most of these websites is at or above a college reading level – above the capabilities of a majority of South Africa’s citizens.

VisibleThread’s index ranks the clarity of provincial website writing on four distinct measures:
  1. Readability – How readable is the content? A score of 50 or above is ideal.
  2. Passive Language – Active language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences are passive? 4% or less is ideal.
  3. Long Sentences – What proportion of all sentences are too long? 5% or less across all content is ideal.
  4. Word Complexity Density – Complex words make web pages hard to understand, a lower score is better.

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Image: South Africa Regional Government Quality Index. A snapshot sourced from VisibileThread Clarity Index South Africa Government 2016

In their executive summary, VisibleThread reiterated that the basis of civilization and government is anchored in writing. Yet, of all forms of communication, it has some of the greatest shortcomings. They noted that, when communication is poor, the cost of government increases and service delivery programs fail.

While this has prompted many governments internationally to have clear language policies to simplify communications, the South African government does not have a mandated plain language policy, to the detriment of its citizens.

You can download the full VisibleThread report SA Provincial Government Clarity Index here.