Can "Witsies" Count?

2015-10-16 12:10

South Africans, it would seem, are not too good with numbers. Our global ranking, as listed by the World Economic Forum places South Africa’s Maths and Science education stone last out of the 143 countries surveyed. It also ranks the country in position 139 with regards the overall quality of its education system. Lower than Angola, lower than Mozambique and lower than Timor-Leste, a country I had never heard of until reading the report. And given that I am a product of the South African education system, my dismal Geographic knowledge should probably come as no surprise at all.

Our President himself is no numbers man. He is constantly befuddled by those infuriatingly long numbers that his speechwriters insist on placing in front of him. It is little wonder that he trips over them, gets up to try again, slips once more, dusts himself off, shakes his head in wonderment, gives a little laugh and then finally with the bravado and confidence of Winnie the Pooh, blunders on to pronounce a number that makes sense to no one, not even to those in the Hundred Acre Woods.

His challenge in this regard, might comfortably explain away the whole Nkandla debacle. He is perhaps unclear that Two Hundred and Forty Five Million is somewhat larger than Two Hundred and Forty Five, considering that there are all sorts of commas and full stops that get in the way of the numbers. Our President is no fool and understands exchange rates. While he knows that one dollar is equivalent to thirteen rand, he seems to be unclear when it comes to the exchange rate between Rands and Millions (a currency from a country he seems to be unfamiliar with).

All of this makes the current situation at Wits, a somewhat obvious one. Wits students have “downed tools” in protest of a proposed 10.5% increase in fees. They have blockaded the entrance to the University and caused a shut down of the university two crucial weeks before year-end examinations. The protesting students have threatened to burn down libraries, have intimidated students, thrown people out of study halls and forced lecturers and professors to take refuge for fear of their lives.

The protest is being supported by the PYA. For ease of reference, it is to be noted that the PYA consists of SASCO, the Muslim Student Association and the ANC Youth League. Wits Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib has explained that the increase is necessary as a consequence of multiple factors; one of which is the reduction of funding by the Department of Education (through the NSFAS). Both Higher Education and Training spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana as well as the Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimandi have publicly agreed with the protestors that the increase is too high. This boggles the mind, given that a portion of the funding comes from his department. Nzimandi manages to make Winnie the Pooh look like an Actuary in comparison.

When one looks deeper into the Hundred Acre Wood that is the South African Education system, one notes that the very same students protesting the fee increase this week, protested the low wages paid to university cleaners, last week. So interlinked are these issues, that one placard on campus read “ Instead of Increasing our Fees, Increase the Worker’s Wages.” Even the Philosophy Department at the university struggled to make sense of that one.

There is little doubting the critical need to look at the South African education system. From primary school through to tertiary education, the need is crucial and immediate. But the first lesson of all is to respect what we have, to appreciate what we do have and to treat our universities with the dignity they deserve.

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