In his State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa made commendable proposals on education. However, he has also made many promises that he will not be able to keep, writes Michael le Cordeur in an open letter to the president.
Dear Mr. President
I would like to respond to your invitation for ordinary South Africans to enter into discussions with you. The teacher inside me especially pricked up his ears for anything about the education system and how we can improve it. In particular, I am interested in how you, and I quote you, “want to reach out to those parts of society that have become dissatisfied, disinterested, or marginalized by various forms of dialogue and engagement.” Let me say from the outset that I am not a pessimist. If I were, I would have allowed the injustices of the past and the poverty I grew up with to have my paw in my pursuit of academic freedom. If I may quote you again: “(I) have not surrendered to the powers of pessimism and defeatism.”
My first impressions of the speech, are very positive. Well done, Mr. President, I was able to identify with your reflection on our joint journey over the past 25 years, good and bad, and sometimes even your deep sadness over our painful past. Yet deep within me there is a voice that wants to rejoice with you because we as a “diverse nation have achieved one of the greatest human achievements”: To establish a democracy successfully when the rest of the world did not believe in us do not have. That is why I celebrate with you the triumph of our freedom, the triumph of our young democracy over racist tyranny, “the triumph of hope over despair.” We can indeed pat ourselves on the back.
But, Mr President, after 25 years of democracy, I would like to agree with you that we must first ask ourselves a few questions and answer them honestly and sincerely: Do the oppressed of the past enjoy freedom today? Over the past 25 years, have we succeeded in establishing a society in which all South Africans are equal? Have we built an education system where the injustices of the past no longer determine a child’s schooling? And have we managed to provide jobs to the youth? Especially since it seems that the youth have fulfilled their part of the contract – namely to pass matric?
What I do agree with you is that our youth “must get their foot in the door in the world of work.” For this passionate teacher, it makes a lot of sense to put the improvement of our education system second on your priority list after economic growth. Without an efficient education system, South Africa’s economy would not get off the ground, and the fourth industrial revolution would remain a dream.
Unsafe and hungry
There is a lack of space to list everything that South African education needs within the scope of this letter. Thanks to the past nine (fruitless!) Years, South Africa does not have the money to comply with all your wishes. In my opinion, it is not feasible now to finance free pre-school education (ECD), a tablet for every learner, free tertiary study and the repayment of Eskom’s debt. We will therefore have to prioritize. Let me start with the very basic: Mr President, our children are not safe in school. Here on the Cape Flats, learners often have to cuddle to stay out of the way of bullets and often it is an intensified struggle just to get home safely. I appreciate your intention that the government is determined to create safe schools. However, I do not hold my breath that this will happen within the next three years.
In the same breath I am thankful that 90% of the books came out to the children. But it helps a lot if they have to tackle those books on an empty stomach. A child who is hungry cannot learn – not in Afrikaans, not in English and also not in Venda. By the way: where are the other 10% of the books? Are there still learners who have to do without books?
Mr. President, in your speech you pay tribute to little Michael Komape and Lumka Mkethwa who were both suspected in a pit toilet. However, it still remains disturbing that according to your own audit, about 4000 schools do not yet have decent toilet facilities. We very much appreciate that 699 schools have received new sanitation facilities and that at a further 1150 of schools the process is already in the planning phase. I concede that you cannot be held responsible for the construction of subcities (or townships as we know them). Yet the lyrics of Tracy Chapman’s song grind through my head: Lord in the subcity life is hard. We can not receive any government relief. So when we talk about improved infrastructure in schools, should we not first ensure that every child has access to a safe toilet that will restore that child’s dignity and self-esteem? It is gratifying that the SAFE (Sanitation Appropriate for Education) initiative that you launched was able to mobilize resources and help several businessmen to replace unsafe toilets in schools. This just proves once again that attitudes are changing: There are many South Africans who want to make the new South Africa work.
Dit is verblydend dat u nie – soos so dikwels in die verlede – teen die einde van leerders se skoolloopbaan (matriek) ’n verskil wil maak nie, maar wel aan die begin: Ek weet van nie ’n enkele goed funksionerende (welvarende) skool wat nie ’n suksesvolle voorskoolse onderwysprogram het nie. Anders gestel: Sukkelende leerders word deur die bank genoodsaak om graad 1 te begin sonder dat hulle
properly school ready. The devastating consequences of this are there for all to see: From learners who cannot read to learners who struggle to adapt socially and struggle with discipline. I understand it’s a big expense, but it’s the one issue that’s justified. You will definitely get a tick because you are shifting the responsibility for the ECD centers from Social Services to the Department of Education. Not only is it educationally correct, it also makes economic sense. The real value of this in terms of achieving our goals for the fourth industrial revolution cannot be measured in rands and cents.
Ten out of ten for reading
Speaking of reading: Probably the most important skill a child needs to learn in school is to read with comprehension. It equips the child with the skills to be academically successful, and to get a good job. As you rightly point out: this is probably the main catalyst in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality. You might as well have read from my PhD thesis when you said, “Early grade reading studies have demonstrated the impact that a dedicated package of reading resources, expert reading trainers, and lesson plans can have on the outcome of literacy.” For the fact that the government is going to expand the availability of these resources to the full foundation phase and on top of that start with the poorest schools that have been historically disadvantaged, I give you and the Minister of Education ten out of ten.
Mr. President, as you yourself know, a child who cannot read with comprehension cannot use a tablet either. I am therefore less excited about your intention to equip every learner in South Africa with a tablet computer within the next six years. Do we have the money? I hear you clearly when you say that South Africa faces an important choice: the choice to be overtaken by the technological and digital explosion, or to use that very technology to our advantage. We already see that most textbooks are being digitized. The training of teachers and learners is expanded so that they can become familiar with the emerging world of technology and artificial intelligence. The first matrics took exams in Technical Mathematics and Technical Science last year. The pace at which the digital explosion is moving is staggering. And that’s exactly my problem. You’re talking about in six years, but if my information is correct, tablets will start to phase out in six years. The whizz kids will come up with something new. Besides, I foresee that, as with cell phones, every child in six years would have gotten a tablet in their hands anyway. At the very least, you and the Department of Education cannot be accused of stagnation or failing to keep pace with digital technology and education developments. It is therefore not that the tablet initiative has no merit. But if you ask me what I want for every school child in South Africa, my answer is always: That every child can go to school every day in a safe environment, can learn and read without the hunger pangs gnawing at him,
Mr. President, at the end of your inspirational speech, remind us of the words of the American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler of the time: that the world is constantly changing. The digital development will radically change our country. For this reason, I welcome your idea of appointing a presidential commission to run the fourth Industrial Revolution. Like you, I can not stand those who always want to stand on the sidelines and throw stones. From my side, you get a nod to your remark that the real heroes are the ones who step in and help. Even if it’s just to teach children to read. Together with you, I would also like to call on South Africans to utilize the 25th year of democracy by conducting honest self-examination and asking ourselves whether we have done enough to build the South Africa that everyone dreams of. I quote you: “Let us reflect on our progress and the challenges that lie ahead. Let us reflect on the mistakes made by using them as building blocks in the hope of a better tomorrow ”. When you invited all South Africans to accept co-responsibility for our country to ensure that the government kept its promises, then I knew: This State of the Nation Address is meant for all South Africans. The task
to build a better South Africa and indeed a better education system is the collective responsibility of us all, not just a single individual. Of course, there is still a lot of work ahead of us. But at least you gave this citizen hope. Dear Mr. President, please accept my honest thanks for not missing me.
* It is already 30 years ago today when the black American R&B singer Tracy Chapman wrote the song “Subcity”. It’s a song whose following lyrics evoked a tangle of emotional experiences in me as a young man.
People say it does not exist
Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man. . .
* Prof. le Cordeur is affiliated to Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Education.