Let them pledge

2008-02-21 00:00

Whatever we might think of some of the current activities of the government and the African National Congress, the idea of a pledge to be recited by school pupils during their morning assemblies is a good one. In backing the proposal first mentioned by President Thabo Mbeki and then announced by Naledi Pandor, the Minister of Education, I am not simply taking an ANC line. The pledge was immediately supported by Desirée van der Walt, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on education, who said that it would be a valuable way of making South African children feel that they are part of a larger national identity and that it would help to make them conscious of the need to respect their fellow countrymen and value the principles of an open, tolerant and free society that are embodied in our Constitution.

Mbeki said that the pledge would extol the virtues of humane conduct and human solidarity among all, and Pandor made the point that the pledge “speaks to the values that we really want to internalise and have our young people take up as part of their core purpose in society. We need to set before our young people the idea that they have a real chance of creating a very different South Africa.”

There should certainly be some discussion of the wording of the pledge. It could be simplified and made more vivid and memorable.

It’s a good thing that there has been some robust debate about the pledge, but I have to say that most of the arguments mounted against the idea seem to me to be flawed.

Basil Manuel of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) says that the pledge is “a meaningless gesture”. “What we need are values instilled by teachers who are equipped to teach and instil these values, instead of merely mouthing and reciting a pledge that is of little or no value to them.” Of course we need well-qualified and dedicated teachers to do these things and to be worthy role models, and Pandor would be the last person to deny this. She did not say that reciting the pledge would solve all problems or that the continuing struggle for higher humane and educational standards, which she has often spoken about, should cease. She offers the pledge as an extra resource in this struggle. She obviously hopes, too, that the saying of the pledge will make some impact on pupils, and perhaps on teachers as well, in the short or the long term, and that it won’t always be a matter of “merely mouthing and reciting”.

The remarks made by Dr Bev Killian, head of the Child and Family Centre at University of KwaZulu-Natal, are in some ways similar to Manuel’s. She says: “The mere recitation of an oath, even in one’s mother tongue, is meaningless unless the children participate in discussions, activities and other extensive programming over time to enable them to subscribe to the values of respect, consideration, compassion, empathy, honesty and so forth.” I agree, and I am sure Pandor would too. She does not say that these discussions and activities should not take place, that the pledge should render such things unnecessary. Perhaps she should have spelled this out. But again she surely implies that the pledge should come as something additional to all this. And indeed it seems likely that repeating the pledge each morning will make pupils, especially the more inquiring ones, inquisitive about the implications of what is being said, and that would surely provide part of the platform for the discussions that Killian rightly points to.

Other arguments brought forward as criticisms of the pledge seem to me to make the common mistake of assuming that one cannot pursue several lines of action simultaneously. One pupil says, for example, that combating HIV/Aids and substance abuse “is where the government needs to invest”. Of course the fight against these things is crucial, and perhaps the government should have invested more in this area than it has, but that does not disqualify the pledge. I am reminded of the people who said, at the time of a recent controversy, “How can renaming Loop Street give the poor more food?” These are separate but important issues.

Then there are the more irrational statements, such as “It is a government trick aimed at drawing attention away from their own misdeeds” or “The pledge is a load of rubbish”. But of course people have a right to say these things.

In a thought-provoking article published on this page last week, Ron Nicolson argued that minorities are having to live “on the margins of South African society, on sufferance”. Maybe this pledge, recited each school day by all pupils throughout the country, might among other things play some small part in getting us all rather more integrated.

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