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South African education: still determined by the old geography of apartheid

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Youth was always at the forefront. Extreme left is Cameron Dugmore, former MEC Education Western Cape, as a student circa 1988. Pic Shafiq Morton

THE stinging rebuke of our education system by Dr Mamphele Ramphele, former UCT vice-chancellor and struggle veteran, during her address at the sixth annual Solomon Mahlungu lecture at the University of Johannesburg is a timely reminder that all is not well in education.

Her widely reported remark that the state of our education is worse today than the gutter dispensation of 1976 is a damning indictment after 17 years of democracy. This is a system that many South Africans sacrificed their lives to overthrow.

The issue of enforced Afrikaans-medium education, and the inferior curricula dished out to non-whites via National Party policy over 30 years ago, would not only mobilise the anti-apartheid movement, but revitalise the ANC in exile, and lead to the formation of the United Democratic Front.

Education, regarded as the cornerstone of apartheid, was at the very centre of the South African uprisings of 1976 and 1985. It was the youth who took to the streets to face the Casspirs, the teargas and the live bullets.

Encompassing various race groups and administered by numerous education boards, apartheid education determined from birth your status, your level of employment and your social opportunity in an unequally weighted society.

Dr Ramphele’s assertion, that the current 30% matric subject pass mark degrades the value of secondary education and compromises further tertiary study, is given context via the dumbing-down of learning by the state for political gain.

Her statement that former education minister, Kader Asmal, had fallen victim to “micro-politics” bears truth. During his tenure the matric pass rate’s dramatic increase from 40% to 70% was loudly trumpeted as a success story for the new South Africa.

She also interrogated the 70%-plus pass rate of this year, pointing out that more than 50% of pupils starting in Grade 1 had not written exams for Grade 12. This meant that over half-a-million children had been lost to the system.

As someone who taught high school briefly under the Coloured Affairs Department during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, my encounters with our education system today (via the travails of my own children) have been illuminating, if not depressing reminders of the past.

This is because as much as things may appear to have changed, the reality is that in many ways they haven’t. More than 30 years ago, our school drop-out rate was too high. Today it is still too high. The existence of about four million unskilled and unemployed young people on the streets of South Africa, as Dr Ramphele comments, is a social disaster.

Admittedly, there have been attempts in education to redress past imbalances, but the reality is that most of the poorer schools are still as marginalised as they were before1994. How many schools, for example, can boast computer rooms, functional science laboratories, book-filled libraries and sports fields?

The hard truth is that education in South Africa is still largely determined by the old geography of apartheid.

The big observable change since 1994 might be more racially integrated classrooms, but the bigger one is that many parents in the townships have voted with their feet, sending their children to better schools in other areas. This has adversely affected township schools.

Then there is what many parents perceive as the privatisation of the education system by the state. One of the biggest grumbles from cash-strapped parents today is school fees, and as the economy bites, even privileged schools are going to suffer from shrinking fiscal bases.

During the apartheid era – and we’re not being sentimental here – schools received free stationery and text-books. The lack of free stationery today discriminates unfairly against impoverished communities where children often walk to school with empty stomachs.

An issue that has bothered me for some time has been the Outcomes Based Education (OBE) system that the Education Department rammed down the nation’s throat; this in spite of it being criticised by educators and being internationally discredited at the time of its application in South Africa.

Bureaucrats might now be in the midst of a strategic reverse strategy regarding this disastrous policy, but too few of us are aware that something suspiciously similar to OBE was already being introduced by the apartheid authorities in the early 1980’s.

I can remember having strong words with Subject Advisors on this new system they were trying to foist upon us during a time of great political upheaval. I have since discovered that our old 1980’s workbooks were almost identical to those I encountered as a parent in the 2000’s.

An educator once cynically told me that OBE called for perfect teachers in a perfect world. It demanded learning by random osmosis – impossible anywhere, let alone in post-apartheid South Africa. He added that economically, OBE “saved on the cost of text books” as the teacher was now, de-facto, the text book.

The lack of emphasis on rote learning of multiplication tables and the basic ABC in our education system (another widespread criticism) has led to a drastic drop in overall literacy. Linguistic facility is the bedrock of mathematical competence and conceptual thinking.

As an examiner and tutor at a tertiary institution offering correspondence media courses, I’ve seen first-hand the imperfect fruits of OBE – and the rapid deterioration of literary skills and our slide down the scale of being a well-educated nation.

At a tertiary level I’m now dealing with students who don’t even know where to place a capital letter, let alone construct a grammatical sentence. In comprehension exercises at least 60% of the students cannot identify a figurative expression.

The most redeeming aspect of this experience has been my personal interaction with the students. In spite of severe challenges and distractions they’re good kids, motivated and willing to learn. For most South Africans, education is the only way out of poverty. That is why there are stampedes at universities.

The point has to be made that the failure is our education system – not those subjected to it. There is nothing wrong with our youth. We can only admire their tenacity. But for them to achieve success, we have to realise that even if the legacy of OBE and apartheid is finally reversed, the state will never be able to do everything.

Dr Ramphele’s statement that the wounds of the past should not paralyse our communities bears great import. I agree with her that ignorance should never be an excuse, and that civil society – more than ever – needs to be a demanding and vociferous shareholder in the going-ons of government.

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  1. I admire Dr Mamphele Ramphele. She ‘tells it like it is’ She did so much at UCT in terms of getting the disadvantaged student ‘on track’ so that they could not only pass but excel in their various fields of study. She constantly speaks out against the corruption of our leaders. She should head the National Education Department and raise the bar for all concerned, teachers as well as learners. And then maybe take over the Health department! We not only lack people of vision but also ones who have a good understanding of what is truly required to keep our systems working for everyone.

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