Zama Ndlovu

Education: Political commitment needed

2012-07-04 08:18

Zama Ndlovu

Let’s not pretend to be shocked. We all knew better than to expect solid resolutions on education from the ANC's policy conference. Education may have been top of mind on media, columns and social media, but nothing indicated a shift in political will required to make the difficult decisions on the issue.

We hoped anyway, mostly because we desperately needed political commitment, partly, because we desperately don't want to take the necessary actions to put education firmly on the ANC's table.

Granted, we are a philanthropic nation and there are countless NGOs and programmes that have dedicated their efforts towards creating spaces where disadvantaged learners can receive supplementary tuition. However, given the grand scale of the education issue, a direct confrontation with the government is civil society’s only real option.

As the sun was slowly rising on democracy in South Africa, I was one of the first recipients of the gifts bestowed on young black children by "previously advantaged" money hoping to repent from its government’s sins. I wasn't complaining. I had been misdiagnosed as gifted, and as a reward, sentenced to four days of additional classes that were held in fancy private schools outside Mamelodi (Mamelodi was my centre, so PTA was outside as far as I was concerned). I was the lucky candidate of two "outreach" programmes, one by the German School in Pretoria and the other by Saint Mary's DSG, also in Pretoria.

Freedom's promise

I remember how poor I felt every time our bus arrived at the gates of both schools. I'd look down as I disembarked from the bus, avoiding the gaze of the rich children that belonged there. I was a charity case, a CSI project of their school. If I was lucky, I would be selected to join one of their schools on a full bursary - the thought petrified me. We were often reminded that we were a fortuitous group of children, but freedom's promise was that the coming groups of black learners would not need additional Good Samaritan programmes to receive quality education.

Twenty years later and freedom has yet to keep her promise.

Last week a non-profit I manage, Youth Lab, held a discussion on Access to Quality Education at the Sci Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown for over 100 grade 11s and 12s who are part of the leadership programme hosted there. The programme is very similar to the types of programmes that I was fortunate to be part of as a child, albeit I was much younger than the learners at Sci Bono at the time.

These students come from a variety of feeder schools around Johannesburg, many of them in surrounding townships, to receive additional classes in Maths and Science, as well as additional leadership skills.

It’s a great programme, run by a dedicated group of teachers and professionals. However, although programmes like these can make a significant impact on a child's life (consider me Exhibit A), they do have limited impact.

Influencing the budget

In 2010, there were an estimated 12.3 million learners in South African schools, most of them enrolled in public schools. In this year’s Treasury budget, R207bn was allocated to education, making South Africa a top spender on Education (as a percentage of GDP). Yet, here we sit without results. Jointly, we have thrown a lot of money at the problem but we have not done enough to influence the effectiveness of the expenditure on education.

It is not enough to create supplementary programmes; we need to influence that budget.

I will not bore you with the details of what is wrong with our education system; this is well documented and talked about in our society. But if you were to listen beyond mere chatter about the education crisis in South Africa, you'd understand the frustrations that young South Africans must be experiencing at the moment.

We often hear South Africans ask when today’s young people will stage their own “June 16”, forgetting that June 16 happened because black learners and their parents had no institutional recourse they could use to hold government accountable. June 16, 1976 should never have happened, nor should it ever happen again.

Call for reforms

What should have happened in 1976 and what should be happening now, is a consolidation of efforts towards influencing government decisions. Organisations such as Equal Education, which are holding government accountable, should be getting individual and business support.

South African business leaders should be moving beyond passive aggressive messages in financial statements, and calling loudly for reforms in our education system. And if anyone should be marching, it should be parents, business leaders, and individuals. Not just the learners.

While leaders punt their struggle credentials, young South Africans are naming those leaders as their struggle. But it is not just these leaders that stand in the way of real youth emancipation, it is also our inaction. But let’s not be drawn into a false sense of security, because inaction will not lead to more of the same, it will lead to much worse. No one is safe where gross inequality persists.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

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