No quick-fix solutions

2009-02-19 00:00

In his article titled, “As long as there is racism, brown is black”, social activist Andile Mngxitama asserts: “The slaying of the racist monster cannot be biologically engineered. It is a political battle which must find concrete expression in the transformation of the economy, society and the souls of the living — there are no short cuts.”

I was reminded of this profound assertion as I carefully pondered on all the commentaries regarding the matric results and the general state of education in the country. Many commentators and some education “experts” seem to suggest that there are short cuts and quick-fix solutions to the challenges facing education. When asked, before his death, how long it would take to fix education in South Africa, Chris Hani said without hesitation: “It will take about 30 years.” This he said prior to, but not long before, the 1994 general elections. He could have chosen to take the populist route and suggest quick-fix solutions in order to garner support for the African National Congress, but he opted for objectivity and honesty.

Solutions, as suggested by many commentators, vary from changing policy, changing the system (whatever that means), to changing the entire leadership. This, they feel quite strongly, would propel our education system in the “right direction”.

I think not. I think even the best policies, systems, leadership and even the best implementation mechanisms won’t, on their own, take our education system to the desired destination. There are many socioeconomic factors, outside education, that inevitably affect the quality and outcome of our education. This is the reason why even the recent matric results saw pupils from rural areas doing badly when compared with their counterparts from affluent and urban areas.

Recently on Morning Live, a pupil from Newcastle High School who had been chosen to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama as United States president was interviewed. The pupil said she had to go through a series of interviews to be chosen. Among many things that saw her succeeding was that she talked of constantly watching CNN to follow Obama’s election campaign and buying books on Obama’s life and philosophies.

As a province we are supposed to be pleased that a pupil was chosen from among many to attend this historic occasion and indeed we are elated. However, a move away from this euphoria presents a very sobering reality — the socio-economic status of this pupil provides her with many opportunities that poorer pupils can only dream of. How do you expect a pupil from the poor community of Obonjeni to buy a biography of Obama when bread is the most immediate need? The less we speak about CNN on DStv for the poor pupil from Obonjeni, the better.

Although having failed to succumb to the temptation of quick-fix solutions, Jonathan Jansen hits the nail on the head when he says, “… the [matric] results mirror the new economics: middle-class white and black pupils in fancy schools perform better than rural and urban poor”.

What does this mean? It means the media, commentators, analysts and general citizenry would do better to look at our education system outcomes as a result of broader socioeconomic challenges than single out factors within the education system as a cause of all maladies. If there are still pupils, mostly black, who travel more than five kilometres to school, what does it mean? It means finding solutions to the challenges facing our education system, which “cannot be biologically engineered”. It means it is a battle which must find concrete expression in the transformation of economy, society and the souls of the living. It means there are no short cuts.

The challenges facing education in South Africa are inextricably linked to broader societal challenges. This is the reason why the government works in clusters — because health challenges of the citizenry cannot be divorced from their economic challenges, in a manner of speaking. Any analysis of our education system must find expression within the context of the developmental state that we are.

It is also not helpful for the society to be hyped up about matters pertaining to education only during the December-January period. As a society we need constantly and relentlessly to work at finding real solutions to educational challenges. The discourse, debate and conversation about our education are too significant to be left to only experts and analysts. It is a matter that all of us as citizens must take a strong interest in all year round.

As ordinary members of the society we must begin to use our imagination and think the unthinkable. We need to go out there and claim the future as a virtual space — something that is blank, colourless, shapeless and open to be created and made over — where everything still has to be won. Perhaps those who claim to have all the answers are suffering from an immense inability to estimate the boundaries of their own ignorance.

• Sihle Mlotshwa is the media and citizen liaison officer at the Department of Education.

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