Opinionista Xhanti Payi 14 January 2013

Let them be plumbers!

It is reported, and many millions of times repeated, that Queen Marie Antoinette of France, upon learning that peasants had no bread to eat declared, “Let them eat cake!” I was reminded of this when I heard that the minister of higher education, in discussion about matric exam results last week, said that South Africans are too obsessed with university education – there are other vocations people should consider. Blade Nzimande was speaking in the context of basic education not producing many matriculants who qualify to study at university. Therefore, the minister declared, let them be plumbers! 

I have always suspected that South Africans, many of whom falsely accuse themselves of being democrats, have very little regard for individual liberties, except in relation to themselves. This is certainly true of the ANC and government, both of which constantly speak of “the masses”. The minister’s sentiments were echoed and supported by many callers on the radio programme, and in a discussion with my friends. 

Although it is clear that not everybody who finishes school need advance their education at university, or indeed can, it is not clear why all who want to should not have the opportunity to do so. Proponents of the “we are too obsessed with university education” school of thought support their position by stating that we have a dearth of artisans in this country. They say that we should encourage school leavers to become boilermakers, electricians and the like; that they should also go Further Education and Training (FET) colleges. 

While I agree that we need artisans and that school leavers should be informed of this option, I’m offended by the notion that because of our government’s failure to provide descent basic education to our young people, a failure that limits their options and potential for further study, they should be directed towards specific careers. Imagine being told, “Well, we know you would like to become a leading academic researcher, but the truth of the matter is that our education system is too poor to equip you for such ambition. Now come, we need boilermakers.” Who would accept this?

Of course, there are those who defend their “pragmatic” approach to education and skills, but refuse to see the cruelty of it for the individuals whose potential is limited. How many of the pragmatists dream for their children, their siblings or nephews to be boilermakers? Is the minister the kind of parent who wishes that his child will address the dearth of skilled plumbers? Are we for real? 

The reason people are so happy to make such suggestions is that they have no regard for individual choice, which is central to a proud democratic dispensation. At the centre of why we have a democracy is the assurance that every individual will have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Our problem, and indeed the narrative we hear from our politicians, is that we don’t think of individuals, but of “the masses”. We don’t see the thousands of matriculants as individuals with dreams and ambitions and potential. They are the masses. We are, of course, a democracy, which means we want to give every individual a voice and a chance at the pursuit of happiness. It is not a radical concept that education in South Africa is a privilege. But to state is so bluntly takes it to another level.

When Nelson Mandela spoke as the fist accused at the Rivonia Trial, he spoke of his motivation to engage in the struggle against Apartheid: “Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans. When anything has to be carried or cleaned, the White man will look around for an African to do it for him… They do not look upon them [Africans] as people with families of their own; they do not realise that they have emotions…” 

Every South African has emotions, ambitions, hopes and dreams. 

Our world-revered constitution specifically champions rights of individuals; adopted with the specific purpose to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”. The Constitution further states that “Every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely”. Can we honestly say that every South African child has that right? Can the minister and his supporters, in suggesting that people should stop obsessing about university education and the potential opportunity it provides, say that these kids – disabled by low pass marks which are a result of our poor education system – have the right to choose a profession freely? 

There’s nothing wrong with a vocation in plumbing. If a child sees or is informed of opportunities and financial rewards in plumbing, and after assessing other opportunities and their potential, chooses to be a plumber instead of becoming a geologist, then that’s an outcome we should celebrate. But it cannot be that kids are directed to plumbing because, well, we are failing to provide them with a quality basic education. 

We know that parents choose careers for their children and pressure them into those careers all the time. One parent may prevent a child from pursuing a career in the fine arts and pressure them into medicine. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, but we reject the notion that a child should be directed into a career they don’t necessarily want, even though our country needs doctors. We want every child to choose their career path, and be adequately supported by their parents and the government to pursue their dreams. 

The idea that the government, having failed to develop a child’s potential – to teach them mathematics and physical science, and accounting through an adequate syllabus and competent teacher and teacher material – now suggest that such a child must pursue other careers, is ridiculous in a democratic society. 

The cruel irony of democratic South Africa is that black children, who are the main victims of a failing education system, are encouraged to be plumbers instead of being encouraged to flock into any institution of higher learning they choose. To be told not obsess over a university education, which may open opportunities for them to be leading global researchers in stem cells, or geologists who will find ways to dig out the deep-seated ore in our mines, or other skills we need as a nation to run a modern economy, should be shocking.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being a plumber, but a child should choose to become one, and not be encouraged to any career because the democratic government has failed to adequately give them the kind of basic education that allows them other choices. 

As Nelson Mandela said at the Rivonia trial, “Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable.” DM

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