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25 October 2014 15:13 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jay Naidoo

Education: a morass of mediocrity

  • Jay Naidoo
The conditions in our schools are appalling: sanitation is terrible, learners are without books, and principals have to play a massive role in community support, despite being short of resources. The money was set aside to reform education in 1994, but every noble intention to has since collapsed. And while children all over the country are sold short of essential skills, the government continues to play the blame game. So when will we say, 'Enough'?

Section27’s Nikki Stein, in a recent radio interview, described the Limpopo textbook crisis as “the tip of the iceberg”. This is not rocket science: add up the shocking state of school toilets; the number of schools without electricity, laboratories and libraries; the fact that the Eastern Cape communities have to go to court to ensure that their children do not have to study in mud hut schools (of which there are close to 400). Top it off with the epidemic of sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers and male learners, and you have an inkling of what Stein means.

I know for a fact that we had the money set aside in 1994 as part of the RDP. And yet, as things stand eighteen years later, we are brewing a Molotov cocktail. 

We stand at the edge of a precipice that will leave behind a scorched and angry generation fraught with hopelessness. We face blatant denial from officialdom. Our democratic dividend is in tatters, yet we recycle the propaganda of our Apartheid past, blaming agitators, NGO’s, the media and the courts for our failures. We don’t act against against criminally corrupt officials who raid the education coffers and leave students stranded without textbooks or in shoddy schools built by shady tenderpreneurs.

It is a tribute to the resilience of our youth that so many still triumph over the despair.

The country has had enough of investigations, task teams and sub-committees. What we need is decisive action. For the corrupt to be fired and charged, not more meaningless rhetoric and resolutions. My generation, which led the freedom struggle and which is in power today, stands in the dock. And arraigned against us are the youth of South Africa. 

We experienced an epiphany when the Apartheid state tried to ram Afrikaans down our throats in 1976. We stood up and fought. But the fight isn’t over. The chemistry of a similar explosion exists now, and justifiably so. How different is the quality of our schooling to the Bantu Education of then?  Every independent test has shown that our kids are failing in the most basic foundation of learning in numeracy, literacy, mathematics and science. 

We are producing an army of underskilled and poorly educated youth who have no jobs and are unlikely to have the dignity of a decent job in their lifetime, owing to the fact that their poor skills make them virtually unemployable. We are creating a society of mediocrity with increasing critical shortages of expertise in everything from engineering, science, business, art and culture down to the artisanal skills of plumbing and electricians. And the obscenity is that it is mainly poor black kids that bear the brunt of social exclusion, just as we did under Apartheid. That is a crime. 

Where is competent leadership when we most desperately need it? 

In the late seventies, I volunteered to teach extra-mural classes to nurses as they pursued their qualifications. I was always impressed at their discipline in making their way to the Open School in spite of the dubious hours of public transport and the hardship of their working conditions. Their commitment made me as dedicated as they were to my job. I taught as a temporary teacher for almost a year in Benoni. I could not contemplate not preparing my lessons, not arriving on school on time or not constantly encouraging young learners to reach for their dreams. 

It was around that vision that I agreed, as the founding General Secretary of COSATU, to chair the teachers’ unity talks in the early nineties, which led to the launch of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, SADTU. During the launch, Comrade Nelson Mandela spoke of the positive role the union should play in the transformation of education and making our democracy work. SADTU has a proud history and today represents nearly a quarter of a million teachers in the public sector.

But it needs to put its actions under scrutiny today. Its role was never intended to focus only on the salaries and working conditions of its members. It cannot just point to the failures of government without questioning its own contributions to the crisis. And rhetoric and paper resolutions are not going to solve these challenges. We need some tough talk from the union leadership to its members. We need a zero tolerance approach to the ill-discipline.

The Union now has to demonstrate that it is taking leadership on the demand for quality education as a fundamental Constitutional right. Principals are accountable for the management of our schools, as well as governance that creates a culture of learning, and should not be allowed to join unions.

A failure to stand up and be counted will be a huge betrayal of the founders of the Union, what the vast majority of hardworking teachers stand for and the expectations our people have of our democracy. We are penalising the children of the working poor in our townships and rural areas. 

I think that the time has come for the nation to come together as we did in the eighties, when a similar crisis led to the National Education Crisis Committee. I remember the wise leadership of Eric Molobi, who steered us through troubled waters; he was always open, persuasive and humble. 

I think back to how we succeeded in building unity in the ranks of a fractious education sector. We had the militancy of COSAS, who in 1981 adopted the Freedom Charter’s maxim, ‘Doors of learning and culture shall be open to all,’ to the more conservative teacher professional bodies. But it was an enduring coalition that developed a sustainable roadmap for education through our transition to democracy.

That is the kind of leadership we need today - one that is not characterised by political arrogance. We need our president to be leading the call and holding his ministers and officials to account. Let us focus on the interests and needs of the learners. Not the government, Unions, parents or community leaders. What we need is 2012 version of the NECC that must bring all stakeholders together around an action-orientated strategy roadmap to restore the confidence of learners and parents.

It is innovative NGOs such as Section27 that give me the optimism that we can find solutions that put the learners first and hold our leaders accountable.

But the solution needs to go beyond the role of NGOs. The basic education department failed again in previous weeks to comply with a court order to meet its textbook delivery deadline in Limpopo. As Section27’s Mark Heywood has said, “It is very clear from this and other reports that the Limpopo education department is rotten, riven with corruption and incapable of meeting its constitutional obligations to learners.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

And what is the role of parents and communities? They are not blameless. But we need to recognise the power relations within our communities. There is increasingly a nexus of political interests that involve political parties, unions and state officials. In many cases these key political figures capture key positions in our institutions and school governing boards, and hold our education system to ransom to advance their narrow interests. 

I have had the occasion to see this in a microcosm, when a grand design of installing computer laboratories in schools across Gauteng was so delayed that it became a ‘white elephant’ and many remained unused and became obsolete. Principals, parents, the learners and teachers felt powerless to hold the department to account. 

Meanwhile, conditions in schools also remain appalling: Heywood recently told me, “I have been to schools where learners have to strip down completely before entering their school’s toilets because it is so filth ridden, that they fear the smell will cling to their uniform. How is a female learner, who just entered puberty to deal with menstruation, when she does not have a toilet for her privacy and dignity? These children are forced to remain at home at this time and it adds to absenteeism and the eventual loss of instruction time.” 

Principals I have spoken to complained of the provincial department’s habit of remote controlling their schools, demanding reports on useless information. These are the principals who, at the coal face, had to be social workers, feed children a daily meal, be psychologists and mediators of family and community disputes, and find children who had disappeared. We have created a monstrous bureaucracy which absorbs resources and adds little value to delivering quality education. In many cases they have become the dens of criminal enterprises.

But thankfully there are enough public servants committed to serving SA, such as the whistle blower who brought the Limpopo textbook scam to light. 

Last week, we reflected on the values of leadership of the past as we celebrated International Mandela Day. Wherever I go, the name of Madiba is associated with social justice, social solidarity and service to the people especially those socially marginalised.  

If we as South Africans really believe in what that generation of founders of our democracy stood for, then we will find the solutions through our unity in action. Not for 67 minutes a year, but every day of our lives. 

We need to give our children the hope and opportunity for a better future that we promised our nation in 1994 – the hope that, at the moment, is so sorely missed. DM

  • Jay Naidoo
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Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former Minister in Mandela Government and Chair of a GAIN a Global Foundation Fighting malnutrition in the World. You can also visit his Facebook Page or www.jaynaidoo.org.

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