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The disaster that is education in South Africa

13 July 2012

The Limpopo school textbook scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Eighteen years after the dawn of democracy there is still little sign of transformation of education in South Africa. Children who were born in 1994 should be completing high school this year, and are things any better for them?

We’ve been on holiday this week, visiting friends and family in various places in the Free State and KZN, and most of our conversations have been about the parlous state of South African education. Perhaps that’s because most of the people we have visited have been involved in education in one way or another, and so it was only natural that the conversation would turn to that, but I think it is more than that. I think lots of people are concerned about the failure of transformation.

We spent a couple of nights with my cousin Peter Badcock Walters, now retired at Clarens in the Free State. He spoko of preparing a model for educational development in the early 1990s for John Samuel, the ANC’s education fundi. The model analysed just about everry aspect of education, 29000 schools throughout the country, and what would be needed to improve them, and what it would cost.

What happened to John Samuel, I asked?

I heard him speak at Unisa nearly 20 years ago, and was impressed. As I wrote in my diary (13 October 1992):

In the morning the Africa Studies forum had a symposium on the reform and restructuring of the education system. John Samuel of the ANC spoke, very well I thought. He said that the universities needed to participate in the public debate on education policy. He also said that there were more than 6 million illiterate adults, yet no university was undertaking serious research into the problem. There were questions afterwards, and the Dean of the Faculty of Education said that in a democratic society a person had the right to be illiterate. That says a lot about the Faculty of Education. I was very impressed with John Samuel. There was a Dr Segal from the National Education Policy Initiative, who showed a lot of charts to show the present condition of education, which did not look good, and then went on to say that there were 21 universities and 16 technikons in the country, but there is no system of post secondary education. The bodies, such as the Committee of University Principals, that did exist could only act on matters they agreed on, which were almost entirely trivial. A Dr Lemmer then spoke on women in the universities, and pointed out that female academic staff hardly got a look in on the more senior posts.

And what happened to John Samuel? He was sidelined in the political scramble for the best jobs by people whose ambitio0n vastly exceeded their expertise, and is now retired.

In Pietermaritzburg we visited Colin Gardner, retired professor of English at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I’d known him not only as a teacher, but also as chairman of the local branch of the Christian Institute and a fellow-member of the Liberal Party. After retiring from the university he became an ANC city-councillor for Pietermaritzburg and speaker of the city council. We chatter about various things, but the converstion kept turning to the poor state of education.We also visuted Bill Houston, who is doing research into the University Christian Movement, which appeared briefly on the South African scene between 1967 and 1972. But the conversation there kept turning to the failure of educational transformation.

Peter Badcock Walters told us that in Kenya, education is one thing that works well. They have been busily training teachers, and now have more than they need. Perhaps we could import some of them into South Africa, but it probably wouldn’t work, because SADTU (the South African Democratic Teachers Union) is determined to keep education in South Afirca in the Dark Ages of Bantu Education, or even worse, and would object to the very idea of having competent teachers. It’s not entirely SADTU’s fault, and a union is needed to protect teachers from incompetent officials, but it often seems to favour incompetent teachers as well. In one school, apparently, there were 90 pupils  taking accounting, and five teachers. Ther teachers planned their work well, for their benefit, if not for the pupils. They put all 90 pupils in one class, and each teacher taught one day a week. That way they could each work one day, and have four days off.

And I recalled when we were planting a church at Tembisa in 2005. Some of the people were involved in a creche, which, when the children gre older, became a pre-primary school, and later a high school. When we were involved with it it was at the pre-primary stage, though still registered as a creche with the social welfare department rather than the education department. It had five teachers, all graduates, all Zimbabweans. They weren’t registered as teachers, merely as creche assistants, but it was very rare to have a pre-primary and infants school (up to grade 3) with graduate teachers. Back in the 1970s when I was manager of some farm schools built on church land in the Utrecht district it was quite acceptable for someone who had just passed Grade 8, with no teacher training at all, to teach the Grade 1 & 2 children. Such was Bantu Education, and our school system is still run on the same lines. But Zimbabwe and Kenya never had Bantu Education, and their teachers are probably the best in Africa.

But we also spoke of hope.

I have visited the schools of some of the young people in our church at Mamelodi, and I was impressed by the dedication of many of the teachers. The schools were often under-resourced, but in their matric year pupils went to extra classes at weekends. There were arranged by the teachers who were paid no extra for giving up their weekends to help their pupils. There are dedicated teachers out there.

One thing that made some of the people we spoke to hopeful was that in spite of a bad education system, some people seemed to come through it with their minds intact. Bill Houston spoke of a woman from the rural area of Pongola in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal, who had begun her education in a rural school. She said that she found it difficult to explain to the people in her home village the work she currently does — she is a nuclear physicist.

And that reminded us of a time, 38 years ago, when we were involved with a church youth group in Durban North, a white middle class suburb. There was a controversy about corporal punishment in some of the local high schools, and the youth group wanted to discuss it. One member of the parish, Railton Loureiro, was a lecturer at a teacher training college, and we asked him to come and speak to the youth group.

He began by asking how they defined intelligence.

Each member of the group formulated a tentative definition, and when they had all had their say, Railton gave his own definition. “Intelligence,” he said, “is what you do when you don’t know what to do.”

He listened to the young people discussing the caning controversy. Some said that from experiencing unjust punishments at school they had learnt something about justice (not part of the syllabus in apartheid South Africa). Railton asked what they understood by words like “discipline”, and one boy said “the stick”, with no irony intended. Others objected to that, and saw a need for self-discipline. Then Railton said that they might not be able to change the education system, but they could use it. They needed to set their own goals, and see how they could use even a flawed education system to achieve them.

And if a nuclear physicist can come out of a rural school in the Ingwavuma district, then obviously some kids are doing just that.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 July 2012 2:03 pm

    Good points, Steve, but what are some solutions to the problems? For example, how does one motivate/discipline/force teachers to teach more than one day a week? How does one get the kind of dedication from most teachers that one finds in teachers in the top schools? The kind of dedication where teachers are at school from 07;00 (or earlier) until 18:00, often teaching or seeing young people for all of that time, and then they go home to do lesson prep, setting exams, marking until the wee hours. The kind of dedication and compassion where a teacher awards a kid colours and then buys the colours blazer for the kid because the dad is unemployed and there’s no point in having colours if the kid can’t wear them. The kind of dedication where the teacher’s girlfriend gets involved in his extra-mural activities because that’s the only way she can see him during the week. 🙂 (Been there and done that).


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