Prioritise education and grow the country

2017-12-23 13:35
Xolela Mangcu

Xolela Mangcu

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This year marks not only Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president, but the 30th anniversary of a little-known turning point in the struggle against apartheid.

It is one Ramaphosa would do well to reflect on, if only because he played a big part in bringing it about.

In February 1987, I joined a group of students at Wits University for a discussion about preparing ourselves for the end of apartheid.

I was not entirely convinced that apartheid was about to fall.

But the ANC activists knew something that the militant among us did not know – because they were already secretly negotiating with the government.

My own organisation, the Azanian People’s Organisation, was not ready to participate in any negotiations and would keep out of the elections.

I thought that was a mistake, and made my views known to my political mentors at the time, particularly Muntu Myeza, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Saths Cooper and Lusiba Ntloko.

Interestingly, Myeza blessed my decision, and my subsequent decision to join the Development Bank of Southern Africa. That way I could keep the organisation abreast of what was happening within the negotiations.

That turning point constituted what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described as the transition from the “war of manoeuvre” to the “war of position”.

In his book The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci described the former as the outright seizure of power, with one side completely dislodging the other.

He described the war of position as the strategic decisions political actors make in the absence of an outright defeat of the enemy.

This consists of attempts to take control not only of the state, but of the civil and cultural institutions, where real power lies.

African-American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin famously described it as the shift from “protect to politics”.

Rustin was urging African Americans to use the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to move from the politics of the street to take over city governments.

Ramaphosa’s election could be an opportunity for the ANC to go back to the strategic and intellectual culture of the late 1980s – and learn from its mistakes.

The biggest mistake was the focus on black economic empowerment without a word about what I have sometimes described as black intellectual empowerment. As a result, we are just as far from running the strategic institutions of our country as we were 30 years ago.

We not only lack economic power but, more seriously, lack the cultural and intellectual power required for any effective and lasting political and economic empowerment.

Put simply, we can call for radical economic empowerment until we are blue in the face, but we will never run the economy until we have a sufficiently educated population.

It boggles the mind that free marketers and radicals alike think we can ever attain high economic growth without a revolution in education.

This is not about pouring money into education, but about making education the country’s number one priority. Communities need to develop clear plans about how to improve school performance in their respective locales.

It will make no difference to repeat the mantras of service delivery and poverty alleviation that have been the slogans of the ANC for the past 25 years. Without an educated population, we will find ourselves uttering the same mantras another 50 years from now.

There is much to learn from the black consciousness experience with community development in the 1970s, when people like Steve Biko took the development of black children into their own hands.

Unfortunately, the only thing we hear these days about black consciousness is how much it opposed racism.

That was only one side of it. The other was the work of Black Community Programmes, which built schools, clinics, home industries and developed research institutes, leadership training centres and published journals such as Black Review and Black Perspectives.

The result was the development of a generation of able leaders, some of whom rose to the highest levels of the liberation struggle, including Ramaphosa.

As he will become the first president of the country who went through what Barney Pityana once called the “black consciousness mill”, I would urge Ramaphosa to go back to that heritage of self-reliance.

As Pityana (not Biko) famously put it: “Black man, and woman, you are on your own.”

Many years later I heard Ramaphosa give a speech in Sandton in which he repeated those words with a modification.

He said: “Black man (and woman) you are on your own, with your government.”

I took that to mean that government has a tremendously important role to play in empowering local communities, if we can start by focusing on developing each community’s productive assets, which can only start with making education the most strategic challenge facing the black world.

Perhaps Ramaphosa can make himself the education president, by leading the campaign for education, including standing up to the trade unions that impede improved educational outcomes for our children.

That could involve the right kind of compensation for the people who do the nation’s most important work – educating its children.

A focus on education would require winning the war of position within his own party. By that I mean cultivating within the ANC a strong constituency for education, instead of the corruption and patronage that has come to be associated with the party.

Political party affiliation should not stand in the way of national cooperation on the education of the nation.

It will require an inclusive president, something that, sadly, we have not had for some time now.

Mangcu is a professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town

Read more on:    cyril rama­phosa  |  education  |  anc

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