During the December holidays, I embarked on a 70km trip on a gravel road from Butterworth to Mazzepa Bay, a journey that took me past a village that was once a hotbed for skills development in the former Transkei homeland.
The village, known as Teko and situated in Centani, was home to Teko Vocational School. In the 1980s the school was a point of pride for the then Transkei ruler, Kaiser Daliwonga Matanzima, who had figured out that having an army of skilled artisans was vital to luring industrial investors into the rural homeland.
When I was passing the village, it struck me that the proposal put forward last year in September by basic education minister Angie Motshekga for the introduction of some form of grade 9 exit examination was nothing new.
Motshekga wants learners to be awarded a general education certificate after passing the grade 9 exam.
This certificate will then be used as a key to enter technical and vocational training, meaning that young people don’t have to remain in high school until they pass grade 12 to access high-level skills that prepare them for the job market.
Unsurprisingly, sceptical South Africans have poured cold water on the proposal, fearing their children could be subjected to low-quality education.
But I strongly believe that Motshekga’s idea, if properly executed, could work in turning the tide against our staggeringly high level of youth unemployment and unlocking the shackles holding back our economy, now growing at almost 0%.
Transkei, which was integrated into the Eastern Cape province after the end of apartheid in 1994, had a similar exam set-up to that which Motshekga is proposing, whereby Matanzima created a developmental pathway for learners who could not cut it past standard 7 (today’s grade 9).
Those who could not negotiate the standard 7 speedbump were channelled towards technical schools like Teko, where they learned artisanship from motor mechanics, building science, plastering and bricklaying, carpentry and plumbing to welding and electrical engineering.
You still had Transkei University and Transkei Technikon, where the entry requirements for academically gifted learners was a standard 10 (grade 12) certificate.
One of my brothers studied building science at Teko (now known as King Hintsa TVET College) and when he was back at home for school holidays, he used to tell us tales of boys as young as 16 who were capable of taking a car apart and quickly reassembling its components because they learned car maintenance skills.
The school, nestled inside a tree plantation, was not the only technical college imparting artisanship to young men and women in Transkei. There were others like Cicira College in Mthatha (now King Dalindyebo TVET College), which also developed skills that were needed to power Transkei’s economy.
The homeland was so awash with motor technicians and auto electricians that it was not unthinkable that industrial towns like Butterworth and Mthatha could have easily hosted a car manufacturer willing to produce vehicles in the area.
Most of the graduates found work in East London, where German carmaker Mercedes-Benz is based, and the Port Elizabeth-Uitenhage area, where US automaker General Motors and German car producer Volkswagen had set up shop.
The point I am trying to drive home is that these graduates were able to acquire skills that propelled them into middle-class status, completely shedding their past image of being slow learners.
Sadly, the arrival of democracy in 1994 and the ushering in of an inexperienced ANC-led government, while welcomed, negatively impacted the future of vocational and technical training while the quality of basic education deteriorated.
For starters, the grade 9 exit or external exam was scrapped, and vocational and artisanship training took a back seat to education from universities and technikons.
Most of this shift in education thinking and planning coincided with the introduction between 1996 and 2006 of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) economic policy, which implemented a string of spending cuts that were intended to drive down inflation and government debt.
Although GEAR is largely credited with stabilising the economy after the end of apartheid, it did decimate the education system, whereby several vocational schools, teachers’ training colleges, and nursing training colleges were shut down.
The end result of the GEAR-inspired austerity came to bite SA later when it found itself with an acute shortage of artisans it needed to roll out a massive infrastructure development programme that kicked off from the late 1990s.
According to the National Treasury, the government spent R3tr on infrastructure between 1998 and 2018.Today SA has a shortage of 40 000 artisans, but the government’s National Development Plan has a goal of producing 30 000 artisans a year by 2030.
Right now, companies have been forced to import artisans, from welders to carpenters, from abroad to fill the void.
The shortage of artisans also confirms a study done by Stats SA a few years back that concluded that today’s youth are less skilled than their parents, who were born during apartheid.
Unless we address the skills crisis afflicting our youth, we stand no chance of expanding the economy and rolling back youth unemployment, wherein now people between the ages of 15 and 34 account for 63.4% of all unemployed persons in our country.
Andile Ntingi is the chief executive and co-founder of GetBiz, an e-procurement and tender notification service.