Opinionista Mlilo Mpondo 19 February 2014

Why a literate government has chosen to govern illiterate citizens

Through the ages literacy has been used as a measure of social control and there are many contexts which give truth to this. Jean Searle references the denouncement of reading and writing by the ancient Greeks, and says that they claimed that such frivolities were akin to laziness and they preferred the art of rhetoric instead. Those ruling men were a sneaky bunch, because in their dismissal of literacy as slothful, they created a belief which was able to keep people from reading. And so reading and writing became the preoccupation of two types of men, those of the upper and the middle class. America’s Jim Crow laws and Apartheid’s Bantu education are further testimony that literacy has always been the preserve of the dominant class.

You see, the dominant classes throughout the centuries knew all too well that education of any form bestows knowledge, and since knowledge is power, education itself becomes power actualised. Conversely, illiteracy breeds ignorance, and an uneducated populace has always been key to sustaining the status quo. From tribal slaves, to the peasants of feudal Europe and the proletariat of capitalist society, the elite have always known that “the danger posed by critical thinking far outweighs its benefits to the status quo”.

In his memoir, Fredrick Douglass portrays how slavery was sustained. He says it was by keeping the slaves illiterate and by extension ignorant, because literacy would confer upon them a sense of pride and self-sufficiency. If slaves were able to read, they may have questioned the principle upon which the United States Declaration of Freedom was founded – namely that “all men are born equal”; one would assume that if they happened to stumble upon this piece of information, the slaves would’ve wondered why they were regarded as unequal, seeing that equality is, according to the Bible, a birthright of all men.

Even during the industrialisation of Europe and its introduction of mass education, compulsory schooling had only one goal, and that was to produce passive, mild-tempered, submissive workers. A people that performed only as cogs for productivity purely for the sustenance of an elitist status quo.

Many have been at pains in attempts to define or to quantify literacy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) understood literacy to be “measured by assessing reading, writing and mathematical skills in the various domains of social life which influence individual identity and insertion into society. From this point forward literacy involves not only reading and writing but also the acquisition of skills necessary for effective and productive performance within society”. However, this definition of literacy, and the emphasis it generated on the subject, merely proved to further highlight the maintenance of the status quo by the populace; although previously accepted as developmental, others contested that it instead conceived human beings as productive machines whose sole purpose was to contribute mechanically to the economy.

This conception of literacy exposes it as a system of control where Searle says “a moderately literate population would somehow increase productivity and hence the economic development of the country”.

Even in the so-called third world, with the dawn of independence, mass education campaigns were designed with the aim of producing “cognitive enhancement, social and economic development”. These campaigns were engineered to cultivate a working-class society, happy to contribute to the growth of their countries and content to receive their minimum wages.

This depiction is not too far from the reality of South Africa. Even though it is obvious to anyone breathing that South Africa is sorely mismanaged, the lacklustre quality of education which is a feature in the country’s schools is by no mistake at all. The question is not why the education system is failing despite the many funds injected into its ministry; rather the question is, why a literate government has chosen to govern illiterate citizens. Moreover, why has the department of education quantified literacy as a functionality – “the ability to read and write short sentences” – as opposed to literacy being a catalyst for human capital development, and by extension self actualisation? Well, if close attention is paid to Frederick Douglass and the reasoning of his slave masters, it becomes rather clear that there are various socio-economic systems designed on the premise of oppression, where “the rulers do not wish the ruled to develop the ability to think and question, because that questioning would lead to a questioning of legitimacy of the systems themselves”.

“Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other”, an assertion made by a slave-owning Thomas Jefferson in 1796, and still practised by a democratically enslaving government in 2014.

What can be deduced is that education is a political issue and because corrupt politics and by extension corrupt governments are in the business of preserving privilege, they only allow their citizens to think so far as their thinking serves the survival of the system, and because “systems differ in how much thinking-power they need to survive”, it would seem that our particular system permits no thinking at all.

Despite the many instances where societies dissented against oppressive governments, education in whichever context is a means to an ideological end. The Chinese under Mao, the Russians under Stalin and the Cubans under Castro may have all revolted against autocratic systems of oppression, but in the end the “Chinese were made literate with the Little Red Book, the Russians with Marxism-Leninism, and the Cubans with the Socialist man”. These people were handed education because education and literacy is what they had fought for, but again even post-revolution, it was a certain type of education designed to achieve a certain ideological end. But because “education is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves”, Anjum Altaf is of the opinion that this post-revolutionary system of education leans more toward indoctrination and not so much toward education.

The South African Constitution is one that has been renowned the world over and celebrated for its world-class pronouncements; it is a Constitution far superior to that of even the supposed ‘First Worlds”. This is all well and good because at face value it advocates principles of human liberty and justice; the problem, however, is that it is far superior to the cognitive experience of the majority constituency. Our government, or rather, the government of the African National Congress, has failed to educate its people of the Constitution’s content and the expectations and requirements detailed therein. The majority of South Africans have no immediate relationship with the Constitution; some know only of its existence but because they have no means of accessing its legal requirements and rights they are resigned to accept that it is a privilege reserved for the few. If you do not understand the Constitution you cannot have access to it. If a society is not knowledgeable of state institutions they will not have the ability to access those institutions. In so saying, literacy goes beyond the confines of classroom textbooks; it informs people of their rights and the intrinsic obligations of those rights, and because literacy is a political agenda, political literacy is an imperative to our South African democracy.

There is a very clear link between literacy and political literacy, and by extension liberated citizenship. Because education is power, whosoever controls education controls power. Yet because South African masses have no access to literacy, they are subsequently made powerless in their ambitions for social and economic empowerment. Without sufficient education, which would breed a literate and comprehensive constituency, people are without the wherewithal to resist political tyranny.

Rural areas are where there is arguably the least amount of education or, for that matter, service delivery; and with arguably the highest levels of government corruption, they are also the only place in South Africa which has displayed the least dissent, if any at all. There are no service delivery protests in rural areas because there is no access to quality education and therefore no availability of rights, a consequence of political illiteracy. The highest levels of illiteracy in South Africa are ironically experienced by the most silent in this country.

To be illiterate subjects people to vulnerability and dependency, a dependency upon which the ANC government thrives. It is no secret that loyalty to the ANC is based primarily on the organisation’s role in the Apartheid struggle; however, upon abandoning the identity of a liberation party and assuming that of a political party, the ANC has not distanced itself from the mantra of the Apartheid age, it has instead reinforced loyalty by perpetually tugging at the sentiments of an oppressed majority, a majority of which they have now become the oppressors.

The governing party has used poverty as a vice. By doing this, they have made the poor believe that it is because of ANC’s leadership that they have received housing, water and sanitation, grants and any other form of social assistance fathomable. The ANC has successfully created a self image of the Moses of an impoverished black majority. This is why so many, although disgruntled, continue to vote for a party that has consistently failed them. The ANC is the only politics they know.

The absence of education is the catalyst for perpetuated poverty and the ANC survives and is sustained by the very inadequate levels of education which it provides. It glorifies lacklustre pass rates, while fully aware that a system which fosters accelerated dropout rates whilst conjunctively promoting a system which engineers a 30% mediocrity in learners that continue to struggle with basic comprehension, cannot be too far removed from the social engineering fostered by Bantu Education.

If the youth are really South Africa’s future, why is it that their economic and human capital expectancy is limited to the confines of labour? The education system engineers them so far as they are productive devices in the economy and not ingenious contributors to it.

Literacy capacitates society with instruments of emancipation and control; it is an engineer for social change against systems of injustice which control the livelihood of an impoverished people. It is a salient feature in any democracy concerned with the emotional and economic progress of its citizens. It goes beyond the acquisition of rights, voting, and freedom of association; on a substantial level it informs the political competence of “skills, perspectives, and values needed for effective political involvement within society to influence the distribution of scarce resources”. Literacy, and herein political literacy, is the sole weapon against unconstitutional governance, it interrogates misguided policies and the associated decision making processes, and is able to hold government accountable.

There is great authority in the ability to understand and dissect issues politically, it would curtail the development of an environment which has become increasingly violent in its demand for human rights, and instead make available to citizens information about institutions where their demands could be addressed and the government held answerable. However, in the absence of political literacy there are more people jailed than those with access to water or quality education. Without literacy people cannot self-determine the trajectory of their lives, a determination which perhaps poses as an imminent threat to ANC rule.

It is therefore questionable whether South Africa’s education system is designed toward serving a political agenda and not toward enabling its constituency to become autonomous thinkers. Political literacy is important for not only the development of skills but also for establishing and embedding progressive attitudes and modes of behaviour “which will enable individuals to be participators in the construction and realisation of their own lives, and by extension society”. Upon observation, it would seem that this is a literacy which the ANC has failed at instituting or rather chosen not to.

On speaking of the mind, Marcus Garvey said “the mind is your ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the man who uses his mind”. And so the poor are slaves of a government that benefits from their poverty, and so they remain poor. DM


"Go down this set of stairs and then just run - run as fast as you can." ~ Lt David Brink, 9/11