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Re-imagine and Rebuild Education in South Africa: A Tribute to Es’kia Mphahlele


Mamphela Ramphele is Co-Founder of ReimagineSA, Co-President of the Club of Rome, and Board member of the newly formed Global Compassion Coalition.

Es’kia Mphahlele was a man ahead of his time. He could see much further standing on ground level. He had no giant shoulders’ to stand on. He was the giant.

Es’kia Mphahlele must be turning in his grave. He must be distraught about our failure to heed his advice in his graduation address at Wits University in 1995:

In the heat and crush, push and shove, urgency, preoccupations, panic and heartburn of the times, it is easy to lose sight of the essence of the dramatic events and issues that have come to the forefront of our consciousness these days around tertiary institutions. We are also afraid of coming to terms with the burden of our history, which bedevils the education crisis we are in. This crisis, we observe, brings out the ugliest in us as academics, students, workers and administrators, and often belies the best we can bring to the hammer and anvil on which we are currently trying to reshape the present into the future.”

We seem to have learnt very little from the lessons of our own history. The 1976 high school student uprisings demonstrated the power of young people to risk all for the ideal of high quality education free of the ideological burden that sought to perpetuate their dehumanization and inferior status in the land of their birth.

The 1995-2000 tertiary education student protests were about aligning the tertiary institutions with our political settlement and the demands for fundamental transformation at the national level. We have to acknowledge that our education system today at both the basic and tertiary levels has failed to rise to the historical opportunities to become the fountain of talent development and ideas generation that was envisaged as one of the outcomes of a transformed system.

Our distress at the violence and destruction of public property, understandable as it is, stands in stark contrast to our failure as a nation to express outrage at the continuing destruction of talent and hope in successive generations of young people. What nation can normalise the theft of hope from so many of its young? Twenty-two years after our political settlement, children are still facing high infant and child mortality rates in a middle-income country such as ours.

Twenty-two years into our democracy, more than 50% of our children still drop out of school, and of those who survive and enter our tertiary sector, 50% of them also drop out.

Where is our outrage at the pain of the more than 4-million young people who are unemployed and walking our streets and villages? Where is our outrage at the millions who find solace from humiliation and despair in substance abuse? Where is the outrage against this monumental destruction of the seed of our future by our education and training system?

Es’kia Mphahlele was a man ahead of his time. He could see much further, standing on ground level. He had no giant shoulders’ to stand on. He was the giant. He understood that for us to build a nation we would have to develop a strong human and social consciousness and move from dependence to interdependence. We must be the shapers of our own future.

In this tribute to Es’kia Mphahlele I would like to suggest that we have all been lulled into complacency by the political settlement of 1994. We neglected to heed Mphahlele’s advice for us to “come to terms with the burden of our history.” I would like to propose that it is time to complement our celebrated 1994 political settlement with a process of “coming to terms with the burden of our history”.

Such a process would enable us to acknowledge the wounds that continue to fester in our society, from the impact of colonial conquest, racist minority governments that legitimised the exploitation of indigenous people through dehumanisation and undermining of their history and culture. The process would also address the wounds of the perpetuation of economic exclusion of the majority post-1994. The successful conclusion of the process would be an emotional settlement. An emotional settlement would unleash the talents and energies that are essential to a third process: a socio-economic settlement.

Re-imagining our Country’s Future

Why is re-imagining our country a critical success factor? First, all dreams, however good, lose their power to inspire and energise people over time. Twenty-two years after our transition to democracy is a good time for us to pause and re-dream ourselves into a future we can be proud of.

Second, we have to listen to the growing chorus of young people’s voices. They feel alienated from the dream of 1994. Some go as far as denouncing it as a sell-out that allowed white people to get away with murder physical and metaphorical. The anger and rage that burst out during public protests cannot be sanitised by pleas for reason. It is unreasonable to expect young people to accept that they cannot live in the inclusive society promised in 1994. We need to work together with them to paint a co-created vision of a re-imagined society that they can co-own and have confidence in.

Third, the negative energy in our society is a signal that all is not well. We need to turn our collective gaze towards the horizon to find the inspiration that would enable us to transcend the rut we are in as a society. We need to remind ourselves that we have one of the most beautiful countries in the world that is rich in human, natural and mineral resources. We need to raise the bar of our imagination and paint a bold picture of an inclusive prosperous democracy we can all be proud of.

A re-imagined high quality free education and training system starting from Grade R to tertiary level is not only achievable, but essential to make freedom a reality in the lives of all South Africans. Affordability is a function of priorities. A country that dares to toy with a nuclear built programme that would cost the equivalent of our entire 2016/17 national budget, while asserting that free high quality education and training is unaffordable, is a country that is determined to destroy the seeds of its own future.

Free high quality education would need us to accept education as a critical essential national investment priority. It would entail shifting our priorities to deal with the backlogs of the last 22 years of neglect through massive recapitalisation and investment in research and development. We can afford free high quality education if we re-imagine and recommit to building an inclusive prosperous society.

Achieving an Emotional Settlement

Our failure to “come to terms with the burden of our history” is undermining our ability to live the dream of 1994 and beyond. We need to do the essential work of coming to terms with the impact of the injustices visited on the majority population by minority governments over the last 400 years.

Acknowledgement of the wounds inflicted on people through a colour-coded system, and its impact on both the victims and perpetrators, is a necessary precondition to achieving an emotional settlement. We also need to come to terms with the privileges that flow from multigenerational affirmative action in favour of the white community at the expense of the black community. This is what emotional settlement is about.

An emotional settlement has two aspects: an emotional and a transactional element. The emotional aspect is about dealing with matters of the heart. The transactional aspect is about how we come to terms with the consequences of the burden of history and agree to do the work to enable us to move forward into a shared future.

The emotional element is the most difficult to address. Few people readily open up their feelings to scrutiny even within intimate spaces. Our feelings, good and bad, shape our being and our capacity for social relationships. Unacknowledged feelings of hurt that are not addressed tend to fester.

Social pain is even more devastating on a nation’s psyche and imperils its future.

Humiliation undermines the fundamental core of what it means to be human. Our self-esteem is at the core of our being. It is the most important enabler of a sense of well-being, and of our capacity for social relationships. When young people in our society speak of black pain, they speak of this humiliation that persists to date. Both black and white people need to acknowledge this pain instead of being embarrassed that 22 years after our transition to democracy black social pain remains an issue.

Emotional settlement work entails telling one another our stories as South Africans. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was too narrowly focused on gross violations of human rights to significantly assist the national healing process. Only a few people were involved out of the millions of people who continue to carry the burden of social pain. We need broader discussions including those about violations of people on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age and all forms of abuse.

Both black and white citizens need to commit to a process of healing our collective social pain to restore the broken links that inhere in the fact of being human. Four hundred years of imposing Western culture as the standard-bearer and entrenching white superiority has wounded the soul of African people. The impact of the colonial onslaught was even more devastating on African people whose core ethos of social relations are ordered by African humanism, Ubuntu, the “I am because you are”. How could we be when our very assumptions of being were trampled underfoot by those whom we welcomed as fellow humans who then turned against us?

We need to ensure that the teaching and learning of African history and its rich cultural heritage is at the core of the education transformation young people are yearning for. The neglect of the teaching and learning of African and South African history in our schools and universities is an outrage that is crying out for correction. How can we continue to deny African children access to the only sure and tested cultural weapon against persistent white supremacy?

Es’kia Mphahlele also challenges us as intellectuals to lead the charge of securing the transactional aspect of the emotional settlement we so desperately need in our society. We need to create a climate where both the wrongdoer and the wronged have to live together, having come to terms with their respective histories. This would give context and content to the commitment we make in our Constitution to live together “united in our diversity”.

Unity in diversity needs to be premised on the reality that we live in an African country and African culture needs to set the tone of what is mainstream. We dare not fail to rise to the challenge of our times.

Rebuilding our Reimagined Country

Securing an emotional settlement is a prerequisite to citizens recommitting to working together to rebuild the country they re-imagine. Our failure over the last 22 years to build a democratic, non-racial, inclusive, prosperous society can be attributed largely to the lack of a shared co-created vision and the flow of empathy that would give content to the rhetoric of Ubuntu. The acceptance of the “I am because you are” by all citizens inevitably leads to a passion and desire to see everyone being enabled to contribute to the emergence of our envisioned society.

Such a society would be characterised by the unleashing of the talents of all citizens to energise our political, social and economic development processes. Socio-economic restructuring under such circumstances becomes a shared high priority national effort by both black and white citizens. The moral ethos of the society would become intolerant of any missed opportunities to fundamentally transform our society. Reliance on compliance, as in the current inadequate Black Economic Empowerment programme, becomes the exception and not the rule.

Imagine the impact of an announcement that we will no longer leave any one of our children and young people outside the walls of privilege. Imagine what a fully funded and transformed education and training system could achieve over the next 10-15 years. Imagine what transformation of our constrained apartheid geography cities and towns would do to unleash the commercial, innovative entrepreneurial and vibrant cultural life in our society.

Imagine transformed corporates with young black professionals led by confident men and women CEOs from a diversity of backgrounds in our society. Imagine our agri-businesses engaged in sustainable diversified productive ventures – large and small to make us food secure and trade to our advantage. The sky is the limit.

We are at a pivotal moment in our history. We have all the ingredients for success. The choice is ours whether we recommit to re-imagining our country into the great society it can become, or continue to hesitate at the threshold of a new, brighter future.

Coming to terms with the burden of our history would free us to re-imagine ours as a democratic, inclusive, prosperous society where everyone celebrates our true unity in diversity. That would be the greatest tribute we can pay to Es’kia Mphahlele. DM

Mamphela Ramphele, Reimagine Futures Network


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