Fighting to the last

2007-12-28 00:00

Fighting apartheid took up much of his life. Now, in retirement, John Aitchison of the Centre for Adult Education on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, intends to expose corruption in education. This was his challenging message at a recent university farewell that followed his resignation from a national Department of Education mass literacy project, the management of which he describes as “scandalous”. History was repeating itself: his involvement in an earlier project had come to nothing in similar circumstances.

“Education can change an individual for the better, so it has enormous potential for an improved world,” believes Aitchison. It has value in itself and teaches skills of economic value. But in Aitchison’s opinion “it’s more about empowering people to have a positive view of themselves, and providing them with the resources, stimulus and insights to improve their circumstances”. That includes becoming more involved in the democratic process as knowledgeable citizens. In short, as Aitchison says, “it’s all about real freedom and the chance to shape personal lives in responsible ways”.

Adult education is the key. Making up for the apartheid past and the inadequacies of its educational system remains a massive task. But adults as an educational target are always crucial — many are active economically and even more are parents. However, it’s the better off and already well educated who have the mindset and resources to take their education further.

From a position of poverty it requires a massive effort of will to overcome the barriers — shortage of money, discrimination, difficult living conditions — to improve one’s education. Aitchison is critical of the South African government for its lack of commitment to the poor in terms of educational redress. In his view, “it simply doesn’t take the less fortunate seriously enough. I’m an admirer of the long British tradition of mechanics’ institutes, the Workers Educational Association and university extra-mural departments dedicated to the needs of the working class and women.”

As well as being an academic, Aitchison is an ordained Anglican minister, but he remained a deacon, seeing his calling and ministry in education. His philosophy, he says, “is rooted in basic Christian religious belief about equality and justice and the living of fuller, more meaningful lives”. He admits that the philosophy of education for liberation of the Brazilian Christian socialist and radical theorist of literacy, Paulo Freire, had “a formative influence on me,” as it did on many organisations and individuals in the South Africa of the seventies and eighties.

He has travelled the world, including many African countries, looking at educational systems and concludes that “sustainable development and a strong adult education programme are closely linked. Literacy, numeracy and basic analytical skills are crucial to small and micro enterprises and the self-employment that must sustain future generations.” But, he adds, “as South Africa shows only too well, upgrading of skills is desperately needed in the public service too”.

Aitchison talks with particular enthusiasm about what he saw in Venezuela. Its literacy and basic adult education programmes are well resourced and promoted, efficiently run by hard-working and dedicated people, intensive and independent of the regular bureaucracy. However, he admits that they are “highly politicised” under the government of the populist president Hugo Chavez. And he is critical of what he describes as “the bizarre literacy instructional method” imported from Cuba.

By comparison, adult education in South Africa has been a case study in inertia. This was recognised by former Minister of Education Kader Asmal. He appointed a team that included Aitchison, who recalls the plan that resulted as “very exciting”. But the planners were ousted or marginalised and Department of Education officials took over. The result? The project “festered into insignificance”, aborted through inaction and underfunding stemming from a “closed, intolerant culture, incompetence and an obsession with control”. Unisa managed a modest project that helped 350 000 adult learners, but foreign funders eventually despaired and pulled out.

The ANC and new Minister Naledi Pandor acknowledged the problem and restarted the process. “To my great surprise,” says Aitchison, “I was again involved, although I had been acerbically critical of previous failure”. Not even he anticipated there would be a repetition of events: he likes quoting Oscar Wilde to the effect that one mistake is human, a second inexcusable. Aitchison openly praises the work of the Ministerial Committee on Mass Literacy for which he was the lead report writer and then author of the detailed operational plan. “I have never worked with such an excellent team,” he says, applauding their proposals as “good, workable and detailed”. The full report, completed in May 2006, has not been published for reasons unexplained.

But the plan fell foul of the “obstruction, studied inefficiency and delaying tactics” of relatively junior departmental bureaucrats. Aitchison quickly agrees on the operative word — it’s sabotage. This was a Cabinet-approved plan, but the three professionals seconded to work on it were frustrated at every twist and turn, “denied even the most basic of facilities such as office space and equipment”. Dragged into the departmental bureaucracy, this impressive and innovative project is quietly being strangled.

The reasons became obvious in October. Four governance options had been put forward. But work was going on in secret within the Department of Education to privatise the literacy campaign. Tender documents had even been prepared. This loss of autonomy, Aitchison argues, “subverts the whole design, ethos and rationale of the ministerial committee’s plan and makes a mockery of efforts to apply lessons from best international practice”.

So exactly how can a project of this magnitude and importance, supported by both government and professional experts, be highjacked? Aitchison sees the reason in a toxic institutional culture created by “exiles indoctrinated in eastern Europe, retreaded apartheid-era bureaucrats, and inexperienced activists locked into now outmoded and meaningless rhetoric”.

Aitchison retires this month after a stellar career in adult education. Instead of piloting a national initiative that goes to the heart of crucial issues such as poverty and citizenship, he will work from home, continuing his research and involving himself in materials development.

• John Aitchison was educated at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg and banned for 10 years between 1965 and 1976, when he was excluded from educational institutions. Later he lectured at the Federal Theological Seminary and then worked as education officer for the Anglican Diocese of Natal. Appointed deputy director of the University of Natal’s Department of Extra Mural Studies in 1981, he became a full professor in 1995. During the eighties he managed a highly-regarded violence monitoring project covering the midlands that formed the basis of his masters thesis, “Numbering the dead”. He testified before the Truth Commission.

• South Africa has 9,6 million people (over 20% of them in KwaZulu-Natal) who are unschooled or functionally illiterate. The Ministerial Committee on Literacy’s plan envisages a five-year initiative reaching 4,7 million of them at a total cost of R6,1 billion (about R1 300 per person). Face-to-face instruction will need 80 000 tutors concentrating on reading, writing and numeracy. The achievement of literacy is designed to feed into basic adult education. Special attention is paid to the needs of the disabled. The objective is to enable participants to function in society and fully exercise their constitutional rights and responsibilities.

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