Matric results highlight disparities of life in SA

2015-01-25 15:00

The release of the 2014 matric results recently was predictably followed by intense intellectual analyses and commentaries by prominent personalities in academia and in civil society.

But the analysis that caught my attention was the one by my friend and former colleague Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town: “Matric results still reflect a racial hierarchy” (City Press, January 11 2015).

Professor Buhlungu made two interesting observations that are worth repeating. First, the fact that the continuing racial disparities in life have been well documented in academic discourses, but rarely in the public domain.

Second, that even if social class is held as a constant, the hierarchy in educational outcomes still persists in the order of whites, Indians, coloureds and black Africans. I couldn’t agree more with these observations.

However, the puzzling aspect of Professor Buhlungu’s article happened to be the most important: the answer as to why these racial disparities in educational outcomes continue to plague the nation after 20 years of democracy and state intervention.

According to Professor Buhlungu, the explanation lies in two areas – the non-use of mother tongue instruction and a curriculum that is not meaningful to the pupils.

The difficulty I had with this part of his observation was that I could not discern from the article whether the explanation he offered was a common sense explanation or a statistical one.

But from the definitive statement that the explanation lies in two areas, one gets the impression that his explanation of the phenomenon was based on statistical evidence.

In other words, the non-use of the mother tongue and a curriculum that does not reflect the lived experiences of pupils explains everything there is to know about racial disparities in educational outcomes.

But Professor Buhlungu’s explanation is problematic in the face of many empirical studies that have been done on the subject of race differences in educational outcomes post-1994, including a study I co-authored with two other colleagues.

In our study, which used eight waves of the General Household Survey by Statistics SA to explain race differences in educational outcomes among pupils aged seven to 18 (born-frees), we corroborated the racial hierarchy in the order that Professor Buhlungu has observed (except that Indians/Asians were on top of the hierarchy in our study).

However, we observed that about 50% of the race differences in educational outcomes were explained by the circumstances of the pupils’ families.

In fact, a substantial share of the educational advantage of other race groups over black Africans was because they lived in favourable family contexts.

Specifically, racial groups other than black Africans were more likely to live in households headed by two parents, lived in households where the average adult had at least a high school education and lived in households with fewer siblings.

We further observed that even though the racial gap in educational outcomes was narrowing, its slow pace was evidenced by the fact that it would take 20, 31 and 27 years, respectively, to eliminate the education difference between Africans and coloureds, Africans and Indian/Asians, and Africans and whites.

The purpose of this piece is not to question Professor Buhlungu’s explanation of the racial hierarchy in educational outcomes in the country, but to show that the problem is multifaceted and requires paying attention to other factors for policy purposes.

Yaw Amoateng is a research professor of sociology and family studies at the School of Research and Postgraduate Studies, North-West University, Mahikeng

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