Dashiki Dialogues: On the road to nowhere

2011-12-02 08:24

I met a French lady who kept pouting her lips and wrinkling up her nose while criticising our national projects.

“I find it absurd that your country commits itself to building all these great roads but doesn’t make education free,” she said, hand on jaunting hips and eyebrows arched for emphasis.

Her comments sent me scurrying about in search of things we’ve said about ourselves in this regard.

Perhaps as a normal patriotic reflex, I had to quickly search for some defensive facts to save face.

So predictably, my first instinct involved playing the Madiba card.

I recounted his imploring message to South African children to “go to school”. Surely this is an indication that we do take education seriously.

I also pointed out that in the run-up to the first democratic election in 1994, one of the grand promises made by the ruling party involved universal, free education.

But, eish! I had trouble explaining why 17 years after the fact, the promise is yet to materialise.

I decided then that if you can’t beat them, co-opt them. So we both ran through a constructive chat about the nation’s skills challenges.

This took us to a chilling statistic from a Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection research finding, which was incidentally quoted by Joel Netshitenzhe when he rebuked ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and the league for demanding mine nationalisation as a way of paying for free education.

Netshitenzhe wrote that 86% of all unemployed young people haven’t gone beyond Grade 12 at school, while two thirds of that fraction has never worked a single day in their life.

Now that’s not a sound state of affairs, especially when you consider that our general unemployment rate stands at 42% of working-age people, the majority of whom are miserably under- skilled and uneducated, with little capacity to contribute to economic transformation imperatives.

Contrary to what some radical voices have argued, this means that the greatest tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa is not the TRC’s failure to ensure restorative justice for the previously oppressed, but the continued squandering of the nation’s brain resources. Hence by extension, the future of working-class children.

Now as the atmosphere grew less combative – my French companion smiling more than pouting – I realised that my people need a new dream to pursue.

We are in dire need of a lofty vision to galvanise us all like the struggle against racial segregation and oppression had done.

The rhetoric in the fight for bread, as framed in debates about economic freedom, will only go so far.

This because no matter what dashiki you prefer, all dialogues lead to a singular truth: the mind is a terrible thing to waste.

» I’m on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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