Lasting legacies

2011-07-06 00:00

THAT self-anointed high priest of intellectualism Ronald Suresh Roberts said something last week that raised my ire. It's funny how he has this effect on people. Yet his words reflected aspects of a reality that we confront every day.

Roberts, writing in The New Age, picked on a mistake made by Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya, who said Kader Asmal's wife is Irish, when in fact she is English. The high priest wrote that Asmal would have reacted to this more in sorrow than in anger, over the tragic legacy of Bantu education.

My immediate reaction was that of irritation at his prejudiced and holier-than-thou statement about Makhanya. But, then again, Bantu education has remained an albatross around South Africa's neck. One only has to see this legacy in the shockingly low levels of literacy and numeracy among primary-school children as reflected in the annual national assessment results released last week. So the reality Roberts had me pondering about was past legacies, how they continue to haunt us and how we fail so hopelessly to confront them. The Democratic Alliance and other political parties often say that we cannot go on blaming apartheid for South Africa's current woes. Yet, we cannot dismiss the fact that, like our families, our past makes us who we are.

Bantu education has been described as a crime against humanity because it educated deliberately to undereducate. Its architect, former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, said at the time of its introduction: "There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live."

Verwoerd is famously remembered for saying that Africans were meant to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water" only.

And so we carry that legacy in the mass of unemployed South Africans, the majority of whom are so underskilled they are said to be unemployable.

We carry it in the fact that in the recent assessment only three percent of Grade 6 pupils in the country are able to achieve more than 75% in both language and maths. Fifty-three percent of Grade 3 pupils failed the reading test and 66% failed numeracy. No doubt there are a myriad complex reasons for the current state of affairs in education. I've seen criticism of the method of assessment, the need for mother-tongue education, while teachers in rural and township schools have come in for a drubbing.

The stereotype of the African teacher, which we encounter frequently in the letters pages of our daily newspapers, is that of being lazy and more interested in toyi-toyiing for a higher salary than in the pupils they teach. However, let's not forget that the majority of teachers are products of Bantu education themselves. How can you teach a love of numeracy when you weren't taught maths and how can you teach language, literature and reading with passion when you grew up with no books in your school?

Now I'm beginning to sound like Roberts and his holier-than-thou attitude. There is no doubt that while many have been trapped by Bantu education, many others rose above it. That is the trouble with South Africa. We wear our prejudices on our sleeves — the lazy African teacher, the dishonest Indian, the coloureds who love to party and the hard-working white. I know of black employees, without Model C school accents, who struggle with upward mobility in the private sector because they are blanketly viewed as having had an inferior education.

However, let's not forget that apartheid South Africa also had systems of what were called coloured education, Indian education and Christian national education. These systems may have had more resources, but they were also closed and cossetted by a tight web of censorship laws that prescribed the films we watched and the books we could read.

Perhaps when we begin to acknowledge from whence we came, we will work much harder at leaving a better education legacy for future generations. Our past, all our past, can be summed up surprisingly in the words of a Congress of South African Students statement made in 1984. It said: "The education we receive is meant to keep the South African people apart from one another, to breed suspicion, hatred and violence, and to keep us backward. Education is formulated so as to reproduce this society of racism and exploitation."

It is time to rewrite the future.

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