Prioritise education

2013-01-15 00:00

WHILE the governing party, the ANC, has done well by declaring education one of the five key priorities, it is not yet the over-arching priority that it should be. The fact is that it is the surest way out of poverty for the millions of young people living on the margins of society.

If apartheid was driven by a deliberately poor education system, then post-apartheid must use education to undo the damage caused. The architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, said the purpose of black education was the production of “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. He feared that a better-quality education would enable blacks to ascend the social ladder and fight the coloniality of power and knowledge.

After 1994, South Africa has made efforts to reform rather than fundamentally overhauling the inherited system. As a result, it has changed significantly in form, although one is hesitant to propose that the changes have been radical in the sense that they have sought to remove the residue of colonial and apartheid philosophy and structure from the system.

So, access has improved dramatically with virtually every deserving South African, in principle, having a decent chance to access the education system. Children from very poor families can access schooling without paying and have a free meal at the government’s expense, but the curriculum is alien to them, having an urban and Western bias. Many new schools have been built in areas that were not meant to have them under apartheid, although few of those who enter the system exit it with a good matric pass.

In my own village of KwaHhobhu, Umshwathi, no fewer than four new schools have been added since 1994, enabling my younger cousins to walk fewer than the six to seven kilometres I had to walk to primary school every school day. They have much better facilities, although few have electricity, laboratories and libraries. But, as elsewhere, many young people fail to reach Grade 12, dropping out in droves at every phase of the system. The reasons range from those to do with pupils losing interest and being diverted by other preoccupations. Some have to do with family poverty where children are forced to go out and look for jobs to support their families. In some child-headed households, there is a lack of guidance. Teenage pregnancy has also led many to quit school in order to look after their children.

Many matriculants of my generation got a raw deal and sit on the margins of society to this day, causing younger people to doubt the value of schooling. Some of them made mistakes, but many became bored and alienated, while others were forced to look for jobs on commercial farms and small towns nearby, working long days in the heat for very low wages. I know many of my acquaintances who were really good at school, but are now supervisers of work teams on sugar-cane farms in the Dalton-Mount Ellias area. It is a reminder that apartheid has yet to die.

Many young people do not know about improved opportunities, including financial aid; hence, the long queues for registration at universities every January. Others, including some with good marks, end up loitering, becoming involved in drugs and crime.

But I think the reason that is often ignored is the possibility that some of my cousins are alienated by an education system designed for cosmopolitan Sandton in a rural village or township. It is difficult to inspire children on the basis of an education that says human progress only comes from Western and urban settings, a curriculum that says very little that is already familiar to them and content that elevates Napoleon Bonaparte above King Mgolombane Sandile Ngqika. To top it all, the language of instruction is mostly English, which I myself never mastered until well into university and I still have a lot to learn.

I am not arguing that they should not learn about foreign experiences, but that there should be plurality of experiences for them to broaden their historical consciousness.

While welcoming the call at the weekend by the acting president of the ANC Youth League, Ronald Lamola, for young people to take education and use it as their new weapon in the struggle for socioeconomic freedom, the league should also use its influence to promote education, improve funding, create a strong culture of teaching and learning, and transform the inherited education system, making it more Afrocentric.

This implies galvanising all youth formations throughout the country, getting the National Youth Development Agency focused on this more, getting the ANC to back drastic actions to be taken to overhaul the education system before its failures produce anarchists and angry young people who could take up arms against all privileged people and government.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

More Afrocentric education is required

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