Local wisdom

2013-07-19 00:00

DIMITRI Tsafendas may have killed Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, but Verwoerd’s legacy continues to make waves in many areas of development, particularly in the area of education.

The current education system is anguished by constant shifts in curriculum, infrastructure woes, organisational instability and wrestling between the authorities and the teacher unions.

The challenges in the education system, as well as the many aspirations associated with it, have been well captured by the media, opinion makers and academics. But there is a deafening silence on the role of African indigenous education systems. Its existence and its role appear to have evaporated faster than mediocrity.

Raising issues and challenges remains critical for mapping out possible solutions. However, it should not be done in ways that compromise innovation and solutions for the very same challenges. We tend to have focused more on challenges and differences than appreciating the synergies between Western and African education systems. Where can we find these synergies?

Firstly, the African development ideology has traces of collectivism, collective responsibility and mutual benefits. Individuals are seen as part of the whole, hence life is approached from the collective strengths of the neighbourhood and community. Wealth accumulation was never divorced from social development and the general welfare of the community. There were particular ways of sharing the wealth. There were ways of distributing wealth-creating assets from wealthy families to struggling households.

For instance, a cattle boy from a poor family would be “remunerated” with cows over a certain period of time. There were two main reasons for this. It was about ensuring poor families had food security. And it was also about spreading the most valuable wealth-creating resources to poor families so that they could start accumulating productive assets for their own future generations.

The point here is that the social wellbeing of families was the basis for collective wealth creation and sustainable livelihoods.

History has shown that oppressive instruments associated with colonialism never destroyed the African power of collectivism. Instead, it became a pillar of strength for many liberation movements across Africa. Interestingly, the financial service can be traced back from the mining and industrialisation era, when black South African migrant workers were excluded from formal financial services. Who can dispute that the same power of accumulating financial resources remains the foundation for many investment instruments used by formal financial institutions?

Secondly, the many social challenges that we are facing today point to the erosion of this basis of co-existence.

Consumer-driven lifestyles appear to promote competition and individualism. This weakens the defence and self-cleansing capacities of communities to deal with elements that break down families and communities.

To top it all, the institutions of formal education and many wealth-creating vehicles have cells for breeding materialism and individualism. But this does not mean that materialism and individualism were never in the African systems.

The point here is that we should be able to identify experiences that induce a respect of human life, promote the ideals of a common good and instil the values of co-existence.

Where should we intervene? Early childhood development and selected areas of community education that are directed towards character moulding should be our priority.

Many rural communities have volunteers who start and operate social-development projects, many of them being child-care centres and crèches. They donate their houses, time and limited resources for the benefit of their neighbours. The lack of infrastructure and the complex organisational challenges have not yet discouraged the zeal of thousands of caregivers and early childhood educators. This shows that communities do appreciate the value of formal education. However, it still needs direct investment from the Department of Education.

It demonstrates the self-sacrificing traits that communities have, which should be used to rally greater collective responsibility to complement formal education. This is a window period that we cannot miss. Educational psychologist have proved that almost 80% of a child’s learning potential is established by the age of four.

Last, but not least, we should be engaging with the strengths of indigenous education systems to build habitable communities so that formal education can produce capable workers, entrepreneurs and sociable citizens who can deliver economic and technological objectives, and more importantly, compete in the international development space.

There is undisputed evidence that quality education enables people to claw their way out of poverty, build confidence, respect and social stability.

A combination of community and formal education systems provides more opportunities for improving household incomes and producing responsible citizens.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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