Defend Truth


Back to Education Basics in the Year of Oliver Tambo


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

The year 2017 is special for South Africans, not just because we are bracing ourselves for the many unknowns arising from the Trump presidency in the US and prospects for the return of fascism and narrow nationalism. The year is important because we commemorate the centenary of the birth of Oliver Tambo, an internationalist par excellence.

As the world sets sail on the treacherous journey of protectionism and racial nationalism, Oliver Tambo’s legacy of international solidarity is poised to be sadly undermined at a global scale.

But there is something more distressing here in our own land that threatens to undermine the rich legacy of Oliver Tambo – the dismal performance of matriculants in the OR Tambo District of the Eastern Cape. All indicators point to regression in the valleys and villages such as Nkantolo where Tambo was born.

Let’s digress a bit before we call on the statistics to illustrate this assertion.

A few years ago I had a helper called Nosipho. She was from a village in the OR Tambo District. Nosipho was a good child minder and housekeeper. She quickly taught the toddler to speak, how to avoid banging his head on the corners of furniture, fed him organic home cooked meals and introduced other important values while the boy was in her care. She was very smart and curious. She followed all news channels and read newspapers, which she asked for daily. Unfortunately, due to family circumstances, she could not continue staying with us.

Unfortunately she left just as we were discussing her starting driving lessons and possibly enrolling at Unisa through matured age exemption.

Nosipho had sat for matric exams, passing a few subjects. She had dreams of not being what her mother, aunts and grandmother became – domestic workers. Here she was, miles away from her young twins, doing exactly that. She once told me that she could have excelled at matric had it not been for petty politics in the local education system, lack of resources and absence of teachers. She claimed to have lost more than five months of proper schooling due to local politics. Her children, she said, would most likely go through the same, a blot on the glorious legacy of Tambo.

The local education system failed her like it has to many others in her community. Local petty politics, poorly resourced schools, squabbling educators and counterproductive workerist tendencies all combined to destroy any opportunity to escape her poverty. All on top of a genocidal apartheid bantu education legacy.

The Eastern Cape is fondly known as the home of the legends like Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki, yet it seems the baton has fallen.

It is known for historic, prestigious schools like Lovedale, Healdtown and the Anglican Holy Cross missionary school. This is where the seeds of modern anti-colonial struggles were germinated alongside many other historic schools across the country, like my consistently under-performing alma mater built by the ANC’s founding president, Dr JL Dube.

Sadly, the passion and vision for a brighter future for Nosipho seems to have been buried with the legends as about half of the youth who wrote matric in the district in 2016 did not succeed. Their path is clearly mapped out. Like their uncles, fathers and grandfathers, they’ll most likely end up in the mines risking pulmonary and non-communicable diseases. (Statistics South Africa reported in 2014 that TB was the leading cause of death for all districts in Eastern Cape, OR Tambo included.) For many of the young girls, they’ll be calling relatives like Nosipho to help them look for domestic employment. 

Should such a scenario materialise, the cycle of poverty and inequality will repeat itself on yet another generation. 

It is devastating to think that there is a greater chance of finding a young person in 2017 queuing in a mine and pleading with a white man to take over their father’s position as a rock driller than that of a youth sleeping on the wooden floor of a dusty classroom as he prepares for trial exams and continues the fight for economic liberation. 

Need we remind ourselves that the majority of these young people who are missing the baton are from labour-sending areas such as the OR Tambo District of the Eastern Cape where there is a long tradition of broken families and deferred dreams due to the migrant labour system. Unlike their forebears who were lucky enough to break the colonial glass ceiling, access higher education and lead the liberation struggle, theirs is not a comforting passage into adulthood.

There were 92,755 Eastern Cape students who registered to write the 2016 Grade 12 exams. However, only 83,000 actually wrote them. It is sad that only 15,645 got a Bachelor level pass, which represent only 19% of students who have a chance of attending universities. More devastating than the drop-out rate is that the Eastern Cape was again the lowest performing province in 2016 and also had the lowest provincial mathematics pass rate. Low performance is not only at senior certificate level as TIMSS 2015 shows EC lagging behind all provinces at Grades 5 and 9.

Further analysis shows that Libode and Mqanduli in the OR Tambo District are two of the four worst performing education districts in the country. 

A national prevalence, incidence and behaviour study reported that the Eastern Cape had the highest proportion of young people engaging in early sexual debut among the 15-to-24-year-olds as well as the highest proportion of young people engaging in sexual intercourse with more than one partner. Apart from TB, HIV is one of the 10 leading causes of death for all districts in Eastern Cape, reported StatsSA in 2014. 

Further, according to the HSRC study of 2014, the EC had the highest number of girls under the age of 15 that are sexually active. The same study observed that sub-groups of the population with relatively high rates of childbearing included those in the eastern of part of the province (OR Tambo and Alfred Nzo Districts) and these were African, rural women and those with limited formal education.

The administrative boundary named after our great icon resembles characteristics that are the opposite to his sacrifices and dreams. 

Urgent interventions are required to rescue the situation. A renaissance is necessary. No longer should young people there be victims of their surrounding circumstances. The cycle of poverty needs to and can be broken. We can begin by being honest that an Eastern Cape that remains at the bottom of the matric results is a blot in the memory of one of South Africa’s foremost educators and man of justice, Oliver Tambo. We can break this cycle of poverty if teachers, parents, government and business prioritise the improvement of the entire public schooling system and the quality of the matric pass rates. We can also break the neck of poverty by conscientising our learners to do more to stay in class and complete matric. Learners with a good matric pass still stand a better chance to study further and to be employed.

We can learn from Free State successes built on strong partnerships with all stakeholders, private sector, unions, learners and parents. Unviable schools have been consolidated in the Free State, thus pulling together resources and educators. Education is a priority for all and the results speak for themselves. 

Tambo, in his life, warned us that a country that does not take care of its youth does not deserve its future. 

The global threats that come from rising neo-Nazism may not be in our control. But it is in our hands to eliminate the national threat that comes from the punctured hopes of South African youth, especially those who fail matric, thus limiting the scope of their life chances. The inequality that defines the youth of OR Tambo District can be eliminated. Many of us have met a person with dreams like Nosipho’s. These individuals may for a moment appear to have disappeared into obscurity, but they are out there crying for help so that on their own they can restore their dignity.

In the year of Oliver Tambo we dare not ignore the cries of the children from Nkantolo, Libode, Ngangelizwe, Mvezo, Mthatha and Mqanduli. The province gave South Africa a Tambo, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year. May the memory of his birth mean the renaissance and blossoming of the public schooling system for the Eastern Cape and beyond. DM

Ngcaweni is editor of Sizonqoba: Outliving AIDS in Southern Africa published by Africa Institute and Deputy Director-General & Head of the Private Office of the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Views expressed here are private.


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