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South African education is in serious trouble.

Under apartheid, education in South Africa was deliberately skewed against the indigenous black people. Twenty years into black majority rule, education is still failing the indigenous black people. From Johannesburg, our correspondent Pusch Commey tells why things have not changed much.

There is a public outcry that South African education is in crisis. This came to a head when in January this year, a 6-year-old Grade R (Reception) pupil fell into a pit latrine in a rural school in Limpopo Province and drowned in faeces. Prior to that, in 2012, there had been a big scandal. Textbooks meant to be delivered to school kids in the same province arrived months after the start of the school year. Some did not arrive at all, they were dumped on wasteland. Meanwhile, the contractors who were given the delivery job had pocketed their fat cheques.

These are some of the symptoms of a general malaise, however, there are indications that there are wider problems than pervasive corruption, negligence, and apathy. And the roots of it go a long way back to the Bantu Education Act of 1953 (Act No. 47 of 1953; later renamed the Black Education Act, 1953). This is often cited as the original sin.

Pioneered by a man who many call the father of apartheid, the former Prime Minister (later President) Hendrik Verwoerd, the Bantu Education Act was a segregation law which legalised several aspects of the apartheid system. Its major provision was enforcing racially-separated educational facilities, and the design of a curriculum meant to keep blacks at the bottom of the food chain.

But often ignored are other methodologies that affirmed and uplifted the minority Afrikaner cultural universe and language, as a driving force of success.

In 1977 when the Afrikaner powers that ruled the country tried to impose their language on blacks to solidify their superiority and domination, it led to an uprising in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, during which 87 school children were killed by the police.

Today the empowerment of the Afrikaner is complete. Throughout the country, the Afrikaner-centred schools and universities of excellence built with state resources around the Afrikaner language, culture and knowledge systems stand as testimony. Needless to say, Hendrik Verwoerd was a cum laude student in philosophy and psychology, and completed his masters in those subjects.

For a long period of time, Verwoerd was part of governmental organisations that tackled the problem of poor white Afrikaners, who played second fiddle to the English population, then the dominant force in the economic landscape of South Africa.

When the National Party of the Afrikaner came into power in 1948, Verwoerd, the psychologist and philosopher, embarked on a "Moses mission" to lead the Afrikaner to the land of milk and honey, at the expense of the indigenous black population.

As the minister of native affairs before becoming prime minister, Verwoerd claimed that the aim of Bantu education was to solve South Africa's "ethnic problems" by creating complementary economic and political units for different ethnic groups.

But his intentions were clear when he declared: "There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?"

The schools reserved for the country's white children were of First World standards, and the education was both mandatory and free. Meanwhile, a good 30% of black schools did not have electricity, 25% no running water, and less than half had plumbing. The education for the indigenous Africans, Indians and Coloureds was not free. In the 1970s, the per capita governmental spending on black education was one-tenth of the spending on white education.

The Black Education Act was repealed in 1979 and replaced with the Education and Training Act of the same year which continued the system of racially-segregated education. Segregation became unconstitutional after the introduction of the Interim Constitution in 1994, and most sections of the Education and Training Act were replaced by the South African Schools Act of 1996.

From race to class

Today a black government, seduced by reconciliation, is still feeling its way in the dark, looking for which way to go. The Constitution has banished discrimination, but its vestiges live on in several manifestations. How to mitigate these deficits without enforcing discriminatory policies has become a minefield.

To play catch-up, every successive ANC government has since 1994 allocated an average of 20% of the national budget to education, but still there is dissatisfaction with the outcomes, 20 years into democracy.

The inequalities have morphed from race-based to class-based. Public schools, especially those in black townships and rural areas, are of significantly inferior quality to public schools in white suburbs, while high-fee-paying white-run private schools produce the best results.

And needless to say, whites in general, who have much higher income levels, can afford the best education. They have been joined by an increasing black middle class. It is rare to see the children of government ministers and educational policy makers in public schools. Most have made a bee line to white-run private schools.

In recent times, what has set the alarm bells ringing are comparative studies of South African education with many other countries. In tests conducted in 15 sub-Saharan African countries in 2007 by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq), South Africa ranked 10th out of 15 for Grade 6 reading and 8th for Grade 6 maths --behind countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe--even though South Africa has fewer pupils per teacher, better access to resources, and more qualified teachers than these countries.

The cognitive performance of South African children is highly unequal. An analysis of the national school effectiveness study conducted by the Joint Education Trust revealed that by the age of eight, the poorest 80% of learners were already considerably behind the richest 20% in terms of performance on the same tests. The study took place over three years, starting in 2007 and tracking children in Grade 3 all the way to Grade 5 in 2009.

In a regional context, comparative data on the Sacmeq website shows that when ranked by the performance of the poorest 25% of learners, South Africa comes 14th out of 15 in reading--behind Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho, for instance. Similarly, when ranked by the performance of rural learners, South Africa comes 13th out of 15 in reading--behind Uganda, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The Annual National Assessments of almost 6 million South African primary-school pupils in February 2011, for example, tests showed that Grade 3 learners achieved an average of only 35% for literacy and 28% for numeracy, while Grade 6 pupils managed 28% for languages and 30% for mathematics. And when some Grade 12 pupils who have a Matric certificate can't tell you what 10% of 100 is, then education is in serious trouble.

The conclusion of the Annual National Assessments is that a poor rural child in South Africa will have a better chance of performing well in a school in similar circumstances in Lesotho, Namibia or Uganda, countries much worse off economically than South Africa.

University life

Irrespective of all these challenges, the African child has to contend with massive financial problems if he makes it to university. Every year, for several years, there have been student protests about financial exclusions at universities, which has reached a crescendo this year, with several protests turning violent, as black children see no way out of poverty without a tertiary education.

Unfortunately, government loans and bursaries have consistently fallen short of demand. Last year, 30 billion rand disappeared from government coffers in wasteful expenditure, according to the Auditor General's report.

No wonder more than 40% of students drop out in their first year of university, while, according to recent figures released by the respected Human Sciences Research Council, only 15% of university students actually graduate. Not surprisingly, the graduation rate for whites is twice that of blacks. As a result, a youth insurrection time bomb is in the making.

At the primary level, where it all begins, money seems to be going into a black hole. The South African government spends the equivalent of $1,225 per child per annum on primary education, yet accomplishes less than the government of Kenya (which spends $258 per child), and Zimbabwe ($100 per child). In 2012, South Africa's education system was ranked 133rd out of 142 countries in the world by the World Economic Forum.

In a bid to drive up quality, there have been several curriculum changes since 1994. It started with an Outcomes-Based Education Through Curriculum 2005 policy, whose main aim was to empower teachers. Though resource-intensive, the policy was not very explicit and yet complex to implement in most schools.

It was replaced by a Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) which, in general, simplified the outcomes statements, and gave more emphasis to basic skills, content knowledge, and grade progression. There was also an expressed importance given to supporting teachers.

In December 2007, at the ruling African National Congress' conference in Polokwane, education was pushed to prominence, and of the 20 policy resolutions made, education was prioritised as one of the most important programmes for the next five years.

A new minister, relieved of the burdens of higher education, Angie Motshekga, was appointed to head the renamed Department of Basic Education (DBE). The attention now was decidedly on the curriculum and on making systemic changes.

The DBE set out its long-term vision and medium-term plan, called "Schooling 2025". Now the panacea is embedded in the National Development Plan, a Vision 2030 economic blueprint meant to transform the South African socio-economic landscape. However, the proposed solutions only give an insight into what is wrong with education, without pointing fingers.

Missing: African-centred education

What is astonishing is that the policy makers are not looking closely at the value of the content of education, and its psychological implications for success. Notably absent is a crucial factor--African-centred education. Doing the rounds on social media are reasons why black children drop out of school.

The reasons humorously advanced are that black children are taught: Jesus was white, the Ancient Egyptians were white, the Israelites were white, the last Samurai was white, Santa Claus is white, the last Mohican was white, the white man is Superman, Spiderman and Batman; and 100 years from now black children can become Michael Jackson.

Afrikaner-centred education worked wonders for the Afrikaner child, but was flawed to the extent that it was based on racial oppression. However, it still survives without racial policies today, in private institutions, whose riches came about as a result of the same apartheid policies that enriched the Afrikaner. But African-centred education is nowhere to be seen.

Effectively, the crucial cultural component--instruction in mother tongues--that has driven successful countries around the world (such as Japan, China, South Korea and Russia, as well as the Jewish people both at home and in the diaspora), is missing in South African education.

A recent study done in South Africa on language found that children taught in their mother tongues for the first three years of primary school, before switching to English, compared to those taught in English from the start, registered vastly superior results when the groups were merged during the fourth year.

A body of research done on African-centred education demonstrates that without it education in South Africa will perpetuate myths of white cultural superiority, co-opt Africans and disadvantage them in the long run.

Professor Molefe Asante, a leading African-American expert on African-centred education, writes that black education should have, as one of its tenets, the aim of decolonising the African mind. The central objective is to overthrow the authority that alien traditions may exercise. In order to achieve this, Prof Asante says Eurocentric ideology must be dismantled from everyday African life. This is not to say that the African is to reject foreign tradition, but she or he is to deny its authoritative control on the culture of the African, and denounce allegiance to this authoritative control.

Decolonising the African mind seeks to mentally liberate Africans. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. It is then clear that an African-centred education is essentially based on the idea of mental liberation.

The respected Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o weighs in: "To control a people's culture is to control the tools of their self-determination."

However the devil, as they say, is in the implementation. South Africa today is still a contested terrain, with practically all the economic levers in the hands of white culture and economic power. The local and international publishing houses that provide learning material are almost all white and have deep pockets. The pockets further overflow with government money spent on school books to the tune of 3 billion rand annually.

The government use only a few black educational consultants. Books used in schools rarely have African children at the centre of success stories. They are not the heroes of their narrative and have to figure out things in a foreign language which is seen as the ticket to economic success. This is irrespective of the fact that Verwoerd proved otherwise with the then insignificant Afrikaner language.

African children search hard in the curriculum for books that have their self-image as winners, apart from stories about Nelson Mandela who spearheaded reconciliation and let sleeping dogs lie. To the credit of the great man, he spent a considerable effort cajoling white capital to build schools for black children.

However, when prescribed reading books in South African schools is Snow White (especially the private schools where the black middle class has chosen to entrust the next generation), and when the prescribed text in their language is Little Red Riding Hood translated to Zulu and Xhosa, then the country will continue to scratch its head, come 2030. And the politicians will continue to wonder why education is failing.
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Title Annotation:South Africa
Author:Commey, Pusch
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:May 1, 2014
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