There is a lack of understanding at government level about the extent of the country's education crisis, according to prof. Jonathan Jansen of Stellenbosch University's education faculty.
In his view, the entire South African school system is based on "dumbing down".
"The problem is that the SA government does not think there is a problem in the education system. Maybe President Cyril Ramaphosa is mainly focused on SOE challenges," Jansen said at the annual conference of the SA Property Owners’ Association (SAPOA) in Cape Town on Wednesday.
"SA is the only country with a stupid subject like ‘life orientation’ and mathematical literacy is just ‘maths for dummies’. Every child can do maths. There is nothing wrong with our kids and yet the entire school system is based on the basis that kids cannot do this."
A society benefits enormously when there is investment in human capital, he argued, adding that research shows individuals who obtain a degree also do better. That is why education is such a sensitive issue, in his view.
"Of course we must be clear: the first big problem in SA is inequality. We basically have two unequal school systems in SA. I am amazed that you can have a school with three astro turfs and a polo pool and 10km away a kid can drown in his own shit. How do we live with it? And yet the government says we are doing well because of our matric scores," said Jansen.
"Inequality is one thing, but the SA education system is also very inefficient, getting very little at the output level. For every 100 kids starting in grade 1 only 37 pass matric, only 12 go to university."
In Jansen’s view, this is wasteful in the extreme.
"Research indicates that 78% of grade 4 children in SA cannot read for meaning in any language. How can you expect graduates of quality?" asked Jansen.
Asked what he would do if he were the minister of education, Jansen said he would firstly ensure a massive investment to make sure every child gets a solid pre-school education. Then he would retrain all teachers on how to teach.
"If we do the basics right, the rest will follow," he said.