Defend Truth

Opinionista

SA education system dooms the majority to abject poverty

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Simon Mantell served articles with a big four audit firm and runs a biscuit factory in Cape Town.

The vast majority of school leavers and significant numbers of those qualifying from tertiary institutions are hopelessly ill-equipped for most forms of employment owing to functional illiteracy, innumeracy and absence of cognitive capacity.

Against a backdrop of another anaemic year of economic growth, the national crisis of unemployment continues unabated as new entrants into the job market exponentially exceed available job opportunities.

Our Constitution affirms the rights of young South Africans to receive a proper education and we have one of the largest budgets per capita in the world for primary and secondary education. Despite this, the vast majority of our school leavers and significant numbers of those receiving qualifications from tertiary institutions are hopelessly ill-equipped for most forms of employment owing to functional illiteracy, innumeracy and absence of cognitive capacity.

The continued failure of our school system means most of our youth face a life sentence of menial, hard and unskilled labour at low hourly rates in the unlikely event they ever find permanent employment.

The situation for “graduates” is hardly any better, where dubious qualifications are poorly matched for the requirements of a developing economy, which, given our abundance of natural resources, should be focused on production as opposed to the humanities.

For 25 years the governing party and its alliance partners have refused to grasp the stinging nettle that the first building block of true black economic empowerment is a world-class education. Rather than deliver on this constitutional requirement, the government has preferred to distract masses with pie in the sky job creation promises, together with pledges of decent work at decent pay. The terrible truth for school leavers from the “township” schools and many tertiary institutions is that they are, in a word, unemployable.

Labour, like any commodity, derives its value from the correlation of skill and productivity, which might be dependent on factors including quality education, labour output per hour, available working days in a year, absenteeism, good timekeeping and national infrastructure. It is hardly surprising that South Africa is ranked a woeful 67 out of 140 countries for global competitiveness.

Most government decision-makers and middle-class South Africans, owing to their limited daily interaction with those who are unemployed or in the blue-collar workspace, are hopelessly out of touch with the challenges our less fortunate citizens face.

The education deficit wrought by our government on those whom it should be prioritising is best illustrated in the factory where I work. More than half the employees at this factory received part of their primary and all of their secondary education in the democratic era. These employees are in possession of a Grade 10 pass or higher, yet the paucity of their education is best illustrated by examples where they are unsure how many seconds there are in a minute, how many minutes make up an hour or how many hours there are in a day, and where the most elementary multiplication, division and working with fractions represent bridges too far.

Compounding the innumeracy shortcomings is the lack of basic comprehension and cognitive ability, best illustrated by these employees’ difficulty, even in their mother tongue, to identify salient points of supplied information in order to answer questions or resolve simple problems. The tragic reality is that millions of citizens have been sentenced to sub-economic life imprisonment by an unholy alliance of an incompetent government and its policies, aided and abetted by a destructive South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU).

Given the obvious and disastrous education deficit, the relevant question becomes: is it possible for an employer to offer employment other than the most mundane of tasks and if so, can the potential employee’s total lack of educational foundation allow for significant training or upskilling leading to improved productivity, greater responsibilities, better remuneration and the promised “better life for all”? The short answer is that employers don’t have the capacity or time to provide what is essentially primary and secondary education to potential employees and will rather automate or de-industrialise, as evidenced in SA over the last 15 years.

The following example provides a window into what manufacturing faces in South Africa:

A production working year for an unskilled worker, allowing for three weeks of holiday pay, comprises 49 five-day working weeks before taking into account public holidays, absenteeism, compassionate leave and poor timekeeping.

Inadequate and overcrowded housing means that infection spreads quickly and sick leave of 10 days per year is not abnormal for our less fortunate citizens – this represents another two weeks of productive time lost. Blue-collar mothers are often single parents with little or no support for sick children, meaning that the maximum family compassionate leave of four paid days per year is usually required. The combined sick and compassionate leave totals three weeks of productive time lost on an annual basis, and the long commutes on unreliable public transport cost another two days lost in a year.

The net result is that an average blue-collar worker might be at work for only 42 weeks out of a possible 49 working weeks, whereas white-collar workers will not face these challenges owing to better living conditions, private transport and access to caregivers for sick children.

This highlights how 15% of annual productivity in the blue-collar space is lost through the sheer inefficiency of our system. When one accounts for the education deficit, it is unsurprising that there is a vast disparity between our new minimum wage of R20 per hour and a First World country like Denmark where the minimum wage is R285 per hour.

While organised labour rails about these “wage rate disparities”, the fact is that little separates South Africa from Denmark after one has taken productivity into account. Once again, a practical example clearly illustrates this:

A Danish petrol station with a convenience store and eight pumps requires only one employee, whereas a similar setup in South Africa will employ 10 people in a variety of roles, including petrol jockeys and security. At an average of R28 per hour, the South African employees’ total hourly bill equates to that of the single Danish employee.

It cannot be gainsaid that the dream of a decent job at a living wage should be a right for every South African and as the example above clearly illustrates, it is only individual productivity and efficiency that translate into hourly wages that allow people to realise their dreams.

Tragically, policy uncertainty and the incapacity of the government to provide a reliable infrastructural base and world-class education system have formed an unholy alliance to permanently kibosh the advancement of the vast majority of our citizens.

President Cyril Ramaphosa can make empty promises about tablets for every child and how we must exploit the Fourth Industrial Revolution when the bitter truth is that South Africa is somewhere between the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions.

The education deficit the government has endowed upon the “born-frees” has left them anything but free and it beggars belief that a government can cold-heartedly set out to deliver further and permanent economic slavery and penury to the vast majority of our people. DM

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