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A learning curve: SONAs over the years and the commitment to education


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

My concern is and has been about adequate and quality education. As such, I paid a lot of attention to what the president was saying in SONA 2020 regarding education and the new commitments made regarding education.

Immediately after President Cyril Ramaphosa said “thank you”  it was clear that the glamourphoria was over. We all knew that after the red carpet was rolled away, and MPs and politicians realise they are not Hollywood stars but servants of the people of South Africa, reality would set in. 

We will all wake up to the same South Africa that is the rainbow nation where inequities are as distinctive and as pronounced as the colours of the rainbow themselves; a country where commodities such as education are still languishing in the dejections of development. 

If you are in North West province, one of the degenerating and poorly run provinces since the dawn of democracy, the story remains that five schools are still shut down because the provincial government failed to address concerns about a proposed high school project by the school governing body (SGB) members at Machakela-Mamodibo Secondary in Mogogelo Village in Hammanskraal, as an act of solidarity with SGB members of four other schools in the area. 

According to the chairperson of the Machakela-Mamodibo SGB, Elizabeth Rehlamfu, her school is overcrowded, and learners are housed in dilapidated prefab classrooms and sit on bricks in lieu of decent chairs. Most dehumanising is the fact that learners are still expected to use buckets as latrines.

With the above preface, I looked forward to what President Cyril Ramaphosa would say his 13 February 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA). There were many expectations and a litany of messages, demands and concerns from the public, coupled with a threat of a disruption of his speech. 

A Daily Maverick commentator wrote the following on the eve of the SONA: 

This is your final moment Mr President. Your one last chance to garner the final vestiges of faith, goodwill, energy and determination of not just our proud and robust nation, but the support of the international community too. We are still the same country that Nelson Mandela took onto a world stage in 1994, the same country with vast mineral, agricultural and industrial wealth and capability, much of it crippled, but still able to rebuild”. 

Others were despondent and saw no change in the education sector forthcoming: 

“On Thursday 13 February, the president will again present the State of the Nation Address, and promises will be made, but learners will continue to bear the brunt of an education system that does not favour the poor,” wrote Ayanda Mthethwa. 

My concern is and has been about adequate and quality education. As such, I paid a lot of attention to what the president was saying regarding education and the new commitments made regarding education – both basic and higher education. The operative words being “new commitments” because over the years we have witnessed many SONAs by apartheid and post-apartheid presidents (FW de Klerk, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa). 

The presidents have provided us with some striking similarities and astonishing differences. In my view, there has been and there is scant attention to details regarding developments in the education sector in many of the SONAs. Of course, the SONA promises happened under distinct historical contexts and geographies. 

For example, De Klerk in his SONA on 2 February 1990 said that: 

“A changed dispensation implies far more than political and constitutional issues. It cannot be pursued successfully in isolation from problems in other spheres of life which demand practical solutions… inadequate education and training, illiteracy… still stand in the way of progress and prosperity and improved quality of life.” 

De Klerk admitted that the incoming government would inherit a nation flooded with social ills, most of which pivot around education. In his last SONA, on 24 February 1994, De Klerk did not address issues of education. It is understandable because this was basically a hand-over SONA to Mandela. De Klerk’ s focus was on reconciliation and navigating a possible political turmoil. 

The same year, on 24 May 1994, the first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, delivered his maiden SONA: 

“The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world.” 

Who can forget his reference to Ingrid Jonker: 

“In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life. In the dark days when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life”, said Mandela. 

He made it known that “we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched and the despised”. 

How can we do that with a failing education system? We talk of embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, for example, but society is not given the proper tools to take advantage of it. And by proper tools, I mean education and an adequate education sector.

In the words of Mandela: “My government’s commitment to creating a people-centred society of liberty binds us to the pursuit of the goals of freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear. These freedoms are fundamental to the guarantee of human dignity. They will, therefore, constitute part of the centrepiece of what this government will seek to achieve, the focal point on which our attention will be continuously focused.” In my view, we have strayed from this commitment when it comes to education. 

Mandela’s SONA did explicitly and loudly raise the issue of education and training, saying:

“We must invest substantial amounts in education and training and meet our commitment to introduce free and compulsory education for a period of at least nine years. Everywhere we must reinsulate the culture of learning and of teaching and make it possible for this culture to thrive.” 

Mandela emphatically stated that: “The youth of our country are the valued possession of the nation. Without them, there can be no future. Their needs are immense and urgent. They are at the centre of our reconstruction and development plan.”

The question is: How much have we invested in education and training since Mandela’s SONA call? Up till now it would seem that presidents after presidents are rehearsing Mandela’s SONA on investment in education and training, but the practical fruits achieved are not adequate.

In his SONA of 5 February 1999, Mbeki noted that the majority of South Africans feel that things have improved in the education sector. To this end, he pointed to the fact that many are no longer studying under trees or in dilapidated buildings because of the “R1-billion spent on the construction or renovation of 10,000 classrooms.” If such an investment was made in 1999 why do we still have many schools housed in inhabitable infrastructure? Is it because the education gains under the Mbeki government have regressed or have our school improvement plans just flat-lined? 

Interestingly, Mbeki did appreciate and acknowledge the lack of service delivery the previous year, especially with regard to the delivery of textbooks. More interesting was his call for accountability and consequence management. 

Mbeki said: “We hope that this year the planning and funding will be settled earlier in the year. For, if this does not happen after the pressured experiences of last year; if our administrations are unable to carry out such a straight-forward project; then in the coming year, ordinary citizens like myself, will feel justified in calling, so to speak, for heads to roll.” 

He spoke soundly on basic education and service delivery in the basic education sector. However, not much emphasis was put on the adequacy of higher education and training.

In his 6 February 2009 SONA, Motlanthe made a bold observation: “There is no gainsaying that, by any measure, the progress made since 1994 has been impressive. But neither can there be a doubt that the challenges remain immense.” In the same breath, he found instructive Mandela’s “observation of hope and resilience, continuity and change…”. He also reminded us that there would be a new administration, which eventually was led by Zuma, to “carry forward the noble work of this great freedom fighter and other founders of our democracy”. 

Part of the noble work and crusade of Mandela was adequate and quality education for South Africans – citizens and residents – at both primary and higher education level. Motlanthe did warn against not meeting some of the targets and objectives in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Education was an important element of MDGs and remains an important element of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And yet, education and training were not specifically mentioned as a priority or one of the apex priorities identified in the previous SONA and there was scant direct reference to quality education and training.

Though somewhat controversial, Zuma made some very exciting announcements on higher education and training during the last days of his presidency. But this should also be considered against the backdrop and pressures of the Fees Must Fall crisis. South Africa and the government were on tenterhooks. 

In his maiden 3 June 2009 SONA Zuma stated: “We shall not rest, and we dare not falter, in our drive to eradicate poverty.” By any measure and for any president in any country, this was a rough period of economic meltdown globally that was a kingmaker for some leaders who were able to steer their countries unscathed to the period of economic stability.

Zuma explicitly declared that, “Education will be a key priority for the next five years.”

He said: “We want our teachers, learners and parents to work with the government to turn our schools into thriving centres of excellence.”

In fact, Zuma talked a lot about basic education as a non-negotiable. He even addressed steps that he would be taking, such as meeting principals to discuss the way forward. However, only two sentences of his SONA were devoted to the higher education section. 

He said: “The Further Education and Training sector, with its 50 colleges and 160 campuses nationally, will be the primary site for skills development training. We will improve the access to higher education of children from poor families and ensure a sustainable funding structure for universities.”

In his fourth SONA, on 17 February 2017, Zuma made some exciting commitments regarding higher education funding. He announced to the bewilderment of even those in his party bold measures to fund students in the higher education sector. Zuma made financial assistance commitments that would live beyond his presidency and that no university student in financial stress would have rejected. In Zuma’ s words:

“In December 2015, university students voiced their concerns about the cost of higher education. They correctly pointed out that accumulated debt and fast-rising fees were making it harder and harder for those who come from less-privileged households to enter and stay within the education system until they complete their studies. 

It is for this reason that when university students expressed genuine concerns about being excluded from universities, our caring government responded appropriately by taking over the responsibility to pay the fee increase for the 2016 academic year. The government also settled all debt owed by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students and extended the coverage to larger numbers of students than ever before.

“All students who qualify for NSFAS and who have been accepted by universities and TVET colleges will be funded. The university debt of NSFAS qualifying students for 2013, 2014 and 2015 academic years has been addressed. In total, the government has reprioritised R32-billion within government baselines to support higher education.

“We are ensuring that our deserving students can study without fearing that past debts will prevent them from finishing their studies.”

The commitment above came with a declaration by Zuma that the government had prioritised support for higher education. Zuma’s last SONA commitments on higher education funding created a mountain for the administration of Ramaphosa to climb. Be that as it may, the question remains: What level of priority has Ramaphosa displayed in his SONA commitments? Ramaphosa’ s maiden SONA of 16 February 2018 came with a lot of expectations, though it was lacking in implementation specificity. 

One thing the president did was to acknowledge the 2017 commitment of Zuma, assuring compliance thereof. 

“Starting this year, free higher education and training will be available to first-year students from households with a gross combined annual income of up to R350,000,” said Ramaphosa. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, was tasked with finding ways to implement Zuma’s controversial commitment on funding.

Ramaphosa alluded to transformation in respect to languages at public schools: “In a historic first, from the beginning of this year, all public schools have begun offering an African language”. 

The less said about this point the better, because this new development falls short of following developments in tertiary institutions where English is made the official language of teaching and learning to cater for the diversity of our languages and address the challenge of the dominance of Afrikaans. 

At least, the president announced a good first in the implementation of the first National Senior Certificate examination on South African Sign Language. Infrastructure delivery under the so-called Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative programme was mentioned, with about 187 schools said to have been completed. The current number is now 229 new schools built to date under the Accelerated Infrastructure Delivery Programme, with 14 of the schools built in 2018/2019 compared to 21 schools built in 2017/2018. 

Commendable was the call by Ramaphosa in his 20 June 2019 SONA for all of us to “mobilise.. behind a massive reading campaign”.

For me, this was one of those light statements because no details were provided as to the “massiveness” of the programme. As the saying goes: The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Yes, the president referred to the work of initiatives like the National Reading Coalition and teacher training.  Much focus during this SONA was on basic education and little to none on higher education, except that the president indicated that higher education institutions are not appropriate for instilling literacy skills. 

In his #2020SONA Ramaphosa made some positive noises about education, making inroads in the prioritisation of the education sector. The president declared that “there are immediate interventions that we are making to improve the quality and the relevance of our educational outcomes,” coupled with an admission that what we have achieved so far is not enough. 

Access to education is prioritised with a promise of tangible results. Nine new TVET college campuses will be built this year. But I had mixed feelings about the announcement on bilateral student scholarship agreements signed with other countries. We must be careful that we do internationalise our education at the expense of ignoring skills in the country and denying those who can have an impact on the skills employment opportunities. Let us hope that we will not soon be told that a throng of foreign academics have been imported to impart needed skills. 

Hanne Kirstine Anriansen, associate professor at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University, Denmark, recently said the following about internationalisation of education: “While typically defined as a tool for enhancing the quality of education and research, internationalisation is far from a neutral act, but is embedded in and enhances global inequalities”.

Ekurhuleni is soon to be blessed with a new University of Science and Innovation. According to the president: “This will enable young people in that metro to be trained in high-impact and cutting-edge technological innovation for current and future industries.” 

It should also come as a relief to university vice-principals and managers that the building project is ready to start on which the government intends to “spend R64-billion over the next years in student accommodation.” 

These university managers were, in the 2016 South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) report titled Transformation at Public Universities in South Africa, directed to some crucial findings and recommendations. 

With regard to higher education accommodation, one finding read: “Insofar as university accommodation is concerned, the commission specifically finds that some universities’ residence placement policies have failed to adequately take into account the financial need of students, as well as the particular needs of students with disabilities. 

“The commission also finds that some universities’ placement policies have contributed to the lack of transformation and social integration within institutions of higher learning. Moreover, the commission finds that some universities’ residence cultures remain untransformed and continue to hinder the attainment of substantive transformation in institutions of higher learning.” 

For universities, related recommendations were that: 

“Universities must take measures within available resources to ensure that all residences are properly maintained and that students have access to a decent standard of living. 

“Universities must take measures within available resources to ensure that all residences and other facilities are accessible to persons with disabilities and the TOC should conduct a survey across all public universities to determine the extent of accessibility for those with disabilities. Following this process, the DHET together with the TOC should provide adequate oversight to ensure that facilities are progressively made accessible, within the available means of relevant universities.” 

The SAHRC also made specific recommendations for the attention of the government and DHET. In particular, it recommended that:

“The DHET, in consultation with National Treasury, should give particular attention to the need to develop and/or expand the existing stock of student residences for all universities, but particularly for historically disadvantaged universities, when allocating budgets. Moreover, the DHET should engage with private sector stakeholders and the Department of Human Settlements, with a view to developing additional, decent and accessible student accommodation off-campus.”

SONA is more than a political speech. In essence, it is a policy speech, and as such must be carefully analysed over and above the furore it creates. Its importance can never be overestimated. Furthermore, SONA is a governance report by the sitting president for an array of issues including the state of our education and future developments. The following extract comes from Africa’ s Governance Report:

“Education is an essential social good to help people develop socially, intellectually and economically. Both the African 2063 and the global 2030 Agendas have specifically recognised the latter, not just emphasising access and opportunity for enrolment but providing a focus on skills, and on the quality of education. As an essential foundation of a country’ s ability to provide development for its citizens, Education appears in the IIAG as one of the three subcategories of Human Development.” 

It is common knowledge that both the MDGs and the SDGs of the United Nations consider education as one of the objectives and targets for achievement. The African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want also has education as one of its aspirations. 

According to Agenda 2063, Africa aspires to “Well educated citizens and skills revolution underpinned by science, technology and innovation Priority Area Education and STI-driven (Science, Technology and Innovation) skills revolution.” 

Unfortunately, evidence on the ground is that the education landscape is in crisis: deteriorating quality, misuse and misallocation of funds, poor management and inefficient administration. The status of our education is put out for the world to know:  Broken and Unequal: The State of Education in South Africa. This is how Transparency International describes South African education in its recent 2020 Report. 

I am not convinced that the SONAs give an adequate level of priority to education matters compared to the attention given to issues such as corruption and State Capture, employment, slow economic growth, Eskom, load shedding, and state-owned enterprises. These, for some odd reasons, are considered to be tough issues to the exclusion of our education system that is burning. 

The only hope we have left is in education policies such as the newly published Draft National Youth Policy for 2020-2030. It remains to be seen if the commitments made by Ramaphosa will materialise as announced. 

With all of the above said, thank you, Mr President, on your articulation of education issues. You were on point and relevant. DM


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