Winners despite their lack of formal education

2011-01-22 13:25

The fascination of contemporary South African politics with Julius Malema’s appalling matric woodwork grade suggests our dysfunctional education system may have an unintended and potentially adverse impact on our democracy.

The fact that of the 1 313 932 pupils who started grade 1 in in 1999 only 537 543 registered for matric last year suggests that millions of South ­Africans don’t even have a chance to obtain a G grade in matric woodwork.

The lack of a formal education has never been a barrier to successful participation in public life.

Indeed, President Jacob Zuma is quite ­capable of discharging his duties as the head of state despite his lack of formal education.

Zuma was head of the ANC delegation in Mozambique that included the late Ruth First (killed by a parcel bomb in 1982), Albie Sachs and Z Pallo Jordan, arguably the most accomplished intellectuals of their generation.

But Zuma is by no means the first leader to surpass all expectations despite a lack of formal education.

Sol Plaatje, the founding secretary-general of the ANC, author of the novel Mhudi and Native Life in South Africa in 1913:
a chronicle of the impact of the 1913 Land Act on black people;
an editor and journalist;
and a translator of Shakespeare into Setswana, also had little formal education.

August Bebel, the founder of the German Social Democratic Party (along with Wilhelm Liebnecht), lacked any significant formal education.

He wrote Women and Socialism, one of the few early texts on the emancipation of women.

Keir Hardie, founder of the British Labour Party, who incidentally also worked with Sylvia Pankhurst (a prominent communist of her time) in the struggle for the right of women to vote – barely had any formal schooling.

James Connolly, a top Marxist theoretician and martyr of the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, was largely self-taught.

He was immortalised, along with his comrades, in William Butler Yeats’s The Rose Tree and Easter 1916.

In South Africa David Ivon Jones, a Welshman with little education, and the acclaimed botanist Eddie Roux, helped establish Communist Party night schools in the 1920s whose alumni include, among many others, Moses Kotane, former general secretary of the SA Communist Party.

Clearly contemporary global politics would be inconceivable without the role of these extraordinary individuals, who refused to ­allow a lack of liberal education to ­prevent them from accomplished participation in public life.

As a young Marxist in Johannesburg in the early 1990s, I often found myself in awe of the formidable public-speaking skills, impeccable grasp of issues and consummate ability to encapsulate the essence of a problem displayed by workers and members of trade ­union formations with whom I was ­interacting.

It was quite obvious these workers represented the culmination of a fine tradition of working-class intellectuals that arose from the efforts of Jones and Roux, but which is ultimately connected to a working-class intellectual tradition whose outstanding examples include Bebel, Hardie and Connolly.

Clearly universities, or a liberal education, by no means represent the only settings in which human potential can be nurtured and realised.

Therefore, rather than allow Malema’s G woodwork grade to become a proxy for the insidious exclusion and discrimination of those who have been failed by our ­education system, it should rather serve as an impetus for us to explore creative and innovative ways of developing our thwarted potential, and eventually building a genuinely affirming and inclusive public life.

» Wella Msimanga is a Marxist and a medical scientist 

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