In 1971, the American advertising agency Young & Rubicam launched a campaign themed “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” for what was then called the United Negro College Fund. The United Negro College Fund had a scholarship programme designed to support black students in their pursuit of post-school studies in various professions — an attempt to undo centuries-old deprivations, dubbed “compulsory ignorance” by some observers.
It was a powerful advert that left an indelible mark in my mind. Central to the ad was the proposition that a properly developed and nurtured mind is indispensable in virtually every aspect of life in any society.
An appreciation of this fact should necessarily motivate an unrelenting campaign to prioritise investment in education to ensure the realisation of greater societal good. Such recognition would elevate the idea of the mind as an asset to the level of the “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra.
Having personally invested deeply in this marvellous thought about the primacy of the mind, it is painful to, yet again, have the 2019 Third International Mathematics and Science Study’s relegation of Grade 5 and Grade 9 learners’ academic performance to near the tail end of their peers in 64 countries. The poor scholastic performance of South African learners in maths and science is also confirmed by other international assessment studies and local systemic evaluations.
South Africa’s poor performance is disconcerting, given that it is outperformed by countries that have smaller GDPs or have education budgets claiming a smaller proportion of their national budgets.
There is a veritable body of research in South Africa that documents the poor state of education, ranging from the quality of education, teacher attitudes and behaviours, and school management teams, to infrastructure, etc. A 2011 study by Martin Carnoy, Linda Chisholm, Bagele Chilisa et al comparing learners in two regions that were “physically proximate, culturally and socioeconomically similar… attending the same grade in two different school systems”, namely northwest and southeastern Botswana, offered some insightful findings.
The study found that learners in Botswana performed better than their South African counterparts in maths and language competency. Briefly, the key reasons for the disparity had to do, in general, with differences in pedagogical practices, adequacy of teacher training, and the relations between union and government in the two countries.
It does not have to be this way. The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are deep and tenacious, and require further probing in order to understand the gravity of the tragedy.
Needless to say, this tragedy is in large part the legacy of the colonial project. The singular purpose of the project was primitive accumulation directing all the extracted wealth to the development of the metropole. This accumulation process was accompanied by enabling apparatus such as bureaucracy, education, religion, and so forth. Education for the vanquished offered a rudimentary measure of basic skills and, where necessary, limited professional careers such as administration, teaching and nursing.
Apartheid, as a sequel to the colonial project, imposed a more stringent, virulent education regime. Beyond leaving a legacy of alarming knowledge deficits, the effects of the two systems combined inflicted profound psychological disfigurement, whose symptoms we witness today.
Hendrik Verwoerd, infamously known as the architect of apartheid, stated: “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”
Verwoerd clearly understood the ramifications of domination through educational deprivation better than anyone else who has lorded over the educational enterprise in South African history.
This pronouncement was neither idle nor benign. It was profoundly cruel and criminal. It was promptly implemented through the promulgation of the apartheid education acts (1953, 1963, 1965, African, Coloured and Indian, respectively); the closure of most missionary and night schools that were deemed to be miseducating black people; development of curriculums infused with the Christian National Education doctrine; and the establishment of teacher colleges that produced and reproduced generations of teachers schooled in Christian National Education. A national inspectorate was created to ensure strict compliance.
The damage was massive, decisive and far-reaching. Those who rightly decry the current dismal state of education and proclaim that apartheid education was better, display a shocking ignorance of Verwoerd’s nefarious intentions and their consequences.
In the 1960s and 1970s, EG Malherbe, a prominent Afrikaner educationist, chronicled the devastation wrought by apartheid education and estimated that it would take two generations (about 60 years) to undo the damage and achieve parity among the various groups in educational attainment. But of course, that was not going to happen since two generations later (i.e. the early 1990s), the apartheid regime was still hellbent on denying equal education opportunities for black people.
What was needed at the advent of democracy was the launching of an unrelenting campaign that put education on the same pedestal as the economy. ‘It’s education, stupid’ should have become an unwavering mantra. That is the revolution that was needed to propel the transformation, a catalytic process, that would achieve the desired parity Malherbe imagined.
When democracy was achieved in 1994, the preoccupation was on transition modalities and the doling out of positions to individuals who lacked the fervent devotion and single-mindedness Verwoerd had on the vital role of education in societal transformation. Yes, Nelson Mandela’s assertion that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” revealed his deep appreciation of the tremendous value of education. Philip Robinson once observed that “although education cannot transform the world, the world cannot be transformed without education”.
Unfortunately, most of those deployed were devoid of such insight.
What was needed at the advent of democracy was the launching of an unrelenting campaign that put education on the same pedestal as the economy. “It’s education, stupid” should have become an unwavering mantra. That is the revolution that was needed to propel the transformation, a catalytic process, that would achieve the desired parity Malherbe imagined. The primacy of the economy in all societies has an uncontested privilege dating back to Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) and Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” (1867). Time was ripe to disrupt the trenchant orthodoxy.
If Singapore and South Korea, for example, were able to significantly overcome the colonial legacy and achieve high levels of academic performance, there is no reason South Africa could not do the same. Moreover, South Africa is richly endowed with minerals, human diversity, ample actual and potential talent, and many well-meaning and motivated people. Effective management of these assets is what is sorely lacking.
Apartheid education had malicious intent. Education under democracy has been a display of benign neglect, accompanied in large measure by nonchalance and a generally lacklustre discharge of a crucial mandate by an anaemic education administration.
All is not lost, though. Lately, there have been robust public conversations and publications about the need for South Africa to gear up for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, embracing digital technology and even flirtation with the prospects of involvement in artificial intelligence explorations. These developments are laudable, to say the least.
Unfortunately, the dreams of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Artificial Intelligence enthusiasts cannot be realised, due to the multiple educational deficits: high failure and dropout rates; abysmal educational facilities, some without proper latrines; and generally high levels of illiteracy and innumeracy. These are conditions inimical to the requirements of 21st-century knowledge economies. To achieve the optimal conditions for a successful launch of the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires the launching of a cultural revolution that is designed to promote a greater appreciation of scientific knowledge, evidence-based decision-making and a heightened moral sensibility; a seemingly elusive prospect at the moment.
Ordinarily, I subscribe to a holistic approach to socioeconomic development. But we do not live in an “ordinary” moment. It is a perilous moment with a collective mind-set mired especially in long-retired first and second “revolutions” (i.e. agrarian, industrial). Extraordinary measures are therefore in order. It is insufficient to be exclusively fixated on the origins of the parlous educational legacy apartheid has bequeathed. What is imminently required is renewed, vigorous and sustained recalibration that positions education as a strategic asset enjoying the primacy traditionally reserved for the economy.
Let’s remember that educational opportunities enjoyed by a few, exact a heavy social cost, whereas maximum extension to even reach those on the margins significantly enhances benefits to society as a whole.
It is cruel to waste minds, even a single one. There will be no Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa without quality education for all and a leadership that is inspired by Mandela’s fidelity to education. A vision congruent with modern 21st-century developmental imperatives is a must. DM