Seeking African solutions to African problems

2011-08-29 10:31

South African political activists often like to call for “African solutions to African problems”.

It’s a catchy slogan and has an intuitive appeal but what does it really mean?

Most of the time it’s a nationalistic call to reject “foreign” proposals as impositions from “outside”.

Because of our long history of imperial interventions we embrace the slogan because we worry that outsiders may use their “solutions” to extend their power over us.

Unfortunately this defensive stance reveals more about our own insecurities than it does about the value of others’ ideas or contributions.

It also cuts us off from new sources of knowledge and wisdom.

When we consider how we want to solve our problems we should not subject proposed solutions to ideological or identity tests.

An “African solution” is not one that must originate in Africa or from an African person – though it will often do so.

Rather it must simply work here in Africa. That’s the true test.

So with this in mind, how do we go about finding African solutions to African problems?

First we start by identifying what already works.

For instance, if we apply this strategy to our ailing education system we know that most rural and township schools are so dysfunctional that they are more likely to confirm the poverty of their students than prepare them for finding a way out of it.

But not every school is a failure. Some perform quite well.

This means that the issues that debilitate rural and township learning environments – like unemployment, crime, alcoholism and illiteracy – do not have to determine a school’s performance.

This is not to say that something should not be done to build development in rural or urban areas.

 It is to say that we should identify working schools, learn the right lessons and replicate successes by applying what we have learnt while busy with the longer-term effort of development.

So the question is: what are these schools doing differently and how can we get other schools to do the same?

Since successful schools are not benefiting from any better resources than the surrounding ones, their strategies must be homegrown, the product of their own problem-solving efforts.

For that reason their solutions should be replicable in the surrounding schools where similar social conditions prevail.

Typically, these exceptional schools set higher standards for themselves.

They enjoy the inspirational leadership of a strict, demanding headmaster who fosters a culture of excellence among the teachers and pupils.

He or she instills a sense of purpose in the school, a sense of pride in the staff and learners.

This is maintained through accountability measures for the teachers and disciplinary consistency in the students.

These schools show that we do not need to look far to find African solutions to our education crisis.

Nor must we rely on government experts or expensive interventions.

We have successful schools so we should identify them, learn from them and promote the solutions they have pioneered for other struggling schools.

Second, we must experiment and learn from trial and error. That means moving away from centralised planning strategies that impose master solutions from above. We need to tap into the diversity of this country to find out what works. We already know about what works and what does not.

The Cape Town-based Impumelelo Innovations Trust has a long list of successful development projects, including education that relies on local creativity and innovation to work.

It has documented successful projects for well over a decade now, a rich resource for those who care to use it.

Right now the national education department determines education standards and curricula across the country, leaving it to the provinces to implement their plans.

Unfortunately, when the department makes a mistake, as it did with Outcomes Based Education (OBE), it costs so much – economically, academically and politically – to change.

Thus it can take years for the department to acknowledge a mistake and move on. Worse still, because the department applies policies of unknown value across the whole country, it raises the stakes so high that if the policy is a failure then everyone fails.

But if we had tried to find out what works through trial and error at provincial level, we could have figured out what works a long time ago.

For instance, after 1994 we could have encouraged three provinces to try out OBE, another three to focus on rote learning and another three to go with a learn-by-doing approach.

Within five or six years we would have known which approach held the most promise and then applied it elsewhere or looked for still other options.

We could have done the same regarding language, having three provinces teach every grade in English, another three teach in home languages till Grade 3 and another three teach in home languages to Grade 6.

Needless to say our education offers plenty of examples of failure. But we don’t seem to be learning the right lessons from them, or perhaps we simply lack the will to fix them.

Despite the fact that many teachers bunk classes, arrive late or leave early, they are not held accountable.

Others, meanwhile, do not bother to teach syllabus lessons because they do not feel confident in the subject matter.

But instead of obtaining remedial support they are left in front of the classroom.

Of course our education problems are quite complex but if we want to find African solutions to them we need to focus on three things: identifying and replicating what works, experimenting and learning from trial and error and using failure productively.

Such a process would produce solutions that are locally appropriate, relevant and sustainable – the defining characteristics of an African solution to African problems.

» James is DA Shadow Minister for Basic Education.

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