Defend Truth


An educational perspective on the State of the Nation address


Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

In his State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa made praiseworthy proposals about education. But he also made a few promises he might not be able to keep.

Dear Mr President,

I would like to respond to your invitation that ordinary South Africans should make suggestions to you on how government can better serve the needs of the people.

The teacher in me pricked up its ears for anything about the education system and how we are going to improve it. Specifically, I am interested in how you, and I quote: “are reaching out to those parts of our society that have become disaffected, disinterested or marginalised through various forms of dialogue and engagement”.

Let me say from the start that I am no pessimist. If I were, I would have allowed the injustices of the past, and the poverty in which I grew up, to obstruct me in my pursuit of academic freedom. If I may again quote you: “We will not surrender to the forces of pessimism and defeatism.”

My first impressions of the speech are very positive, Well done, Mr President; I could identify with your reflection on our joint journey of the past 25 years, good and bad, and sometimes even your deep sadness over our painful past.

Yet deep inside me, there is a voice which wants to rejoice with you because we as “a diverse people, will celebrate one of the greatest of human achievements”: to establish a successful democracy when the rest of the world did not believe in us.

Therefore I celebrate with you the triumph of our freedom, the triumph of our young democracy over racist tyranny, “the triumph of hope over despair”. We can indeed pat ourselves on the back.

But, Mr President, after 25 years of democracy I want to agree with you that we first must ask ourselves a few questions and respond to them honestly and sincerely: do the oppressed of the past enjoy freedom today? Have we succeeded in establishing a society in which all South Africans are equal? Have we built an education system where the injustices of the past no longer determine a child’s school education? And have we succeeded in providing jobs for the youth? Especially since it is clear that our youth have fulfilled the contract, namely to pass matric?

Where I do agree with you, is that our youth “must get a head start in the world of work”. For this passionate teacher, it makes sense that the improvement of our education system is placed second (after economic growth) on your priority list. Without an effective education system, South Africa’s economy will not get going, and the fourth industrial revolution will remain a pipe dream.

Unsafe and hungry

Space is too limited in the scope of this letter to list everything that the South African education system requires. Due to the past nine (fruitless!) years, South Africa does not have the money to fulfil all your wishes. In my opinion, it is not currently attainable to finance free preschool education (ECD), a tablet device for each learner, and free tertiary study as well as repay the debt of Eskom.

So we must prioritise.

Let me start with the most basic: Mr President, our children are not safe in school. Here on the Cape Flats learners regularly have to dodge bullets and often it is a desperate struggle to get home safely. I appreciate your undertaking that the government is determined to create safe schools. However, I am not holding my breath that this will take place within the next three years.

In the same breath, I am thankful that 90% of the books reached the children. But it doesn’t help much if they must tackle those books on an empty stomach. A child who is hungry, cannot learn – not in Afrikaans, not in English and not in Venda. By the way, what happened to the other 10% of the books? Are there still learners that must do without books?

Pit toilets

Mr President, in your speech you paid tribute to little Michael Komape and Lumka Mkethwa who both drowned in pit toilets. But it is still a concern that according to your own audit about 4000 schools still do not have access to proper toilet facilities. We have a great appreciation for the fact that 699 schools received new sanitation facilities and that at a further 1150 schools the process is in the planning phase. I admit that you cannot be held responsible for what happens in subcities (or townships as we know them). Yet the lyrics of *Tracy Chapman’s song keep lingering through my head:

Here in the subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief

Thus, if we are talking about improved infrastructure in schools, must we not first ensure that every child has access to a safe toilet which gives the child back its dignity and self-respect? It is gratifying that the SAFE initiative (Sanitation Appropriate for Education) which you launched could mobilise resources, and many businesses contributed to replace unsafe toilets in schools. This once again proves that attitudes are changing. There are many South Africans who want the new South Africa to work.

Grade R

It is encouraging that you – as often in the past – are not only trying to make a difference at the end of learners’ school careers (matric), but indeed at the beginning: I don’t know of a single well-functioning (affluent) school that does not have a successful preschool education programme. To put it differently: struggling learners are all forced to start Grade 1 without being properly ready for school. The devastating result of this is clear for all to see: from learners who cannot read to learners that struggle to adapt socially and struggle with discipline.

I do appreciate that this is a great expense, but it is the ONE expense which is justified. You certainly get a tick of approval because you have moved the responsibility for ECD centres from Social Services to the Education Department. Not only is this educationally correct, but it also makes economic sense. The real value of this initiative, in terms of the realisation of our goals for the fourth industrial revolution, cannot be measured in rand and cents.

Ten out of ten for reading

Speaking of reading; probably the most important skill which a child must learn at school is to read with comprehension. It equips the child with the skills to be academically successful and to obtain a good job. As you rightly remarked, it is probably the greatest catalyst to overcome poverty, unemployment and inequality. You could just as well have quoted from my PhD thesis when you said, “Early grade reading studies have demonstrated the impact that a dedicated package of reading resources, expert reading coaches and lesson plans can have on reading outcomes.”

For the fact that the government will expand the availability of these resources to the entire foundation phase and indeed will start with the poorest schools which were historically disadvantaged, I give you and the minister of education ten out of ten.

Digital explosion

Mr President, as you know, a child who cannot read with comprehension also cannot use a tablet. So I was less excited over your intention to equip every learner in South Africa with a tablet computer over the next six years.

Do we have the money, I beg to ask?

I clearly hear you when you say that South Africa is faced with an important choice: the choice to be overtaken by the technological and digital explosion, or use this same technology to our advantage. Already we see that most textbooks are being digitalised. The training of teachers and learners is being expanded so that they can get acquainted with the emerging world of technology and artificial intelligence. The first matrics have written exams in Technical Mathematics and Technical Sciences.

The pace at which the digital explosion moves, is astounding. And that is exactly my problem. You speak of six years, but if my information is correct, tablets will be phased out within in six years. The whizz kids will come up with something new. In addition, I foresee that, as with cellphones, most children will have obtained a tablet within six years anyway.

At least you and the department of education cannot be accused of stagnation or that you do not keep up with the digital development in the field of technology and education. It is thus not that the tablet initiative has no merit. But if you ask me what I want for every learner in South Africa, my answer will always be: that every child can go to school every day in a safe environment, can learn and read without experiencing hunger, and that every class will have a teacher present every day and teaching.

Carpe Diem

Mr President, at the end of an inspiring speech you reminded us of the words of a future expert, Alvin Toffler: that change is the only thing that we can be sure of. Digital developments will change our country radically. For this reason, I welcome your idea of a presidential commission to manage the fourth Industrial Revolution. Like you, I cannot bear those who always stand on the sidelines throwing rocks. From my side, you get acknowledgement for your remark that the true heroes are those that jump in and help. Even it is only to teach children to read.

With you, I want to appeal to South Africans to utilise our 25th year of democracy to do honest introspection and to ask ourselves if we have done enough to build South Africa that all of us dream about. If I might quote you again: “Let us reflect on the progress and the challenges waiting for us. Let us reflect on the mistakes that were made by using them as building blocks in the hope of a better tomorrow.”

When you – in closing – invited all South Africans to take responsibility for our country’s future to ensure that the government fulfils its promises, I knew: this state of the nation address is meant for all South Africans. The task to build a better South African and indeed a better education system is the collective responsibility of all of us, not just a few individuals.

Of course, much work lies ahead for us. But at least you have given this citizen hope.

Dear Mr President, please accept my honest thanks for NOT disregarding me.


Michael DM

*It is 30 years today that the black American R&B singer Tracy Chapman wrote the song Subcity. This is a song of which the lyrics evoked a mixture of emotional reactions in me as a young man.


People say it doesn’t exist
Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man . . .
Here in the subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief


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