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Our unequal education system is not a fair fight, it’s an ambush


Janine Welby-Solomon is project manager: social transformation at Christel House South Africa, a non-profit school with a single mission: to break the cycle of poverty. It offers no-fee scholarships to students from some of Cape Town’s poorest neighbourhoods. She has a master’s degree in social sciences.

The high rate of youth unemployment in South Africa is directly related to the sad state of the education system. The difference between the school environments of a wealthy child and a poor child is the shameful face of wealth inequality.

When I started my role as the project manager for social transformation at Christel House South Africa eight months ago, wealth inequality was not my area of expertise. I knew it was an enormous challenge in South Africa, but the extent of the challenge blew me away. Youth unemployment is a hot topic in South Africa right now. But if we are to have any hope of addressing it, we first need to take a step back and address the thorn in South Africa’s side: the inequality of education. 

In March 2022, the World Bank released a report on “Inequality in Southern Africa: An Assessment of the Southern African Customs Union”, which says South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, ranking first among 164 countries in the World Bank’s global poverty database.

What this means is that a large portion of the South African population does not partake in our economy. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, for the first quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate was 63.9% for those aged 15 to 24 and 42.1% for those aged 25 to 34, while the current official national rate stands at 34.5%.

The numbers are shocking; stats are stats and they speak for themselves. If you want to see what those numbers mean in real life, what inequality looks like, look no further than our education system.

Read in Daily Maverick: “‘Youth are starved of opportunities’, say experts ahead of Youth Day

The high rate of youth unemployment in South Africa is directly related to the sad state of the education system. The difference between the school environments of a wealthy child and a poor child is the shameful face of wealth inequality.

Unethical differences

I have been privileged to encounter both these types of schools in the past eight months and the difference is not only vast, it’s also unethical. That may seem a tad harsh, but let me paint a picture for you of the difference between a private and a public school in South Africa.

I recently visited two schools from across the wealth divide, in Finetown, Johannesburg, and in Cape Town. At the former, what I saw, I will never be able to unsee.

First, the school is bursting at the seams because of overcrowding; they have 1,500 pupils from Grade R to 7, with an average of 50 per class. One of the Grade 6 classes I visited had 84 pupils squashed into a space no bigger than my office, with wall-to-wall desks and children forced to sit on each other’s laps.

This same school has no running water or electricity and up until last year one of their classes was taught under a tree. With no additional resources, its burnt-out, frustrated teachers are expected to efficiently educate the young people of South Africa in terrible conditions.

Compare this with the school located against the backdrop of Table Mountain, with every resource at its disposal. It has classrooms and lessons that extend way beyond your average mathematics and English. These pupils are being taught about robotics and coding.

These same youngsters have access to sports fields, arts and culture classes, technological resources, psychosocial support, character development programmes and teachers who receive regular training and development opportunities. They are taught to be confident. They are not encouraged to be ambitious – it is expected of them, and they rise to the occasion.

Here’s why I say this is unethical: at the end of their schooling career, this pupil from Finetown competes for the same university spot as a pupil from the private school in Cape Town. And this competition extends beyond university. They compete for the same jobs in the same economy.

Yet, the pupil from the private school is so much more prepared for the battle. Their educational environment has adequately prepared them to fight for their spot in this world. To fight for their dreams and aspirations, the same dreams and aspirations as the pupil from Finetown.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Majority of SA youth forced to choose between job-hunting and buying food

But it is not a fair fight, it’s an ambush. An ambush for that child from Finetown because their educational environment has sabotaged them in the battle for the lives that they envision for themselves. A life outside of poverty, a life outside of Finetown, a life with opportunities, a life that brings joy.

But there is good news on this battlefield. From what I have experienced, many private schools have checked their privilege and have acknowledged that they have a responsibility to level the playing field.

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Many private schools in South Africa are making a considerable effort towards addressing the inequalities between private and public schools through twinning projects which focus on the sharing of resources and upliftment and development of underprivileged pupils through numeracy and literacy programmes.

Private schools have begun opening up their spaces to allow for the sharing of assets such as aquatic centres and sports fields. There are programmes that bring underprivileged and wealthy pupils together, to learn from one another and grow.

Is it enough? Of course not, there are systemic and structural changes that need to take place. Is it a start? Absolutely. Are these programmes important? One hundred percent, yes.

If we want to effectively address wealth inequality and youth unemployment in South Africa, we have a moral obligation to relook our education system so that our classrooms are not just holding rooms for our young people, but a place in which all pupils, not just the privileged, are effectively prepared to be successful in this life.

As philanthropist, the late Christel DeHaan, so beautifully stated: “Every child deserves a seat at the table of life.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Janine writes that “the high rate of youth unemployment in South Africa is directly related to the sad state of the education system”, with respect she has not distilled the core problem back to it’s most basic.

    Back in 1994 Herrenstein and Murray published their research paper – “Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” under the title, The Bell Curve. Many people, uncomfortable with it’s findings, have sought to discredit it, but the rigorousness and methodologies set out in its 845 pages, still stand. The study examines immigrants into the USA, looking at IQ.

    Sadly it shows that Asian immigrants into the USA are significantly blessed with the highest IQ, but relevant to Africa, their IQ is statistically very significantly lower. This cannot be wished away, but it makes it harder and harder for Africa, as a continent, to compete globally. Africa has sought to overcome this problem by raising the African birth rate – normal distribution “bell-shaped” curves still apply, but whilst this increases the outriders on the high side, it similarly raises those on the low side.

    This, gets to the heart of the real issue, not just here in South Africa, but throughout the continent.

    Wishful thinking, does not change realities, and we need to adjust our education systems and goals to reflect this; sadly we cannot all be Asian over-achieving intellectuals.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    A huge amount of blame for the current state of our education, including crowding and lack of resources needs to be laid at the ANCs feet, not private schools. It’s a bit unfair to expect them to shoulder these deficiencies that are mostly government created. These private schools cost alot of money in fees, and parents pay it precisely because they want to give their kids a head start, most not having any leeway to subsidize additional pupils. While I completely agree that private schools can help a limited number of disadvantaged students, they cannot be a solution; there simply are to many that need help. I therefore think you blaming and accusing wealthy schools is misguided, considering that not once did you mention the dysfunctional education department of our illustrious government in this entire article. Any real solutions to the problems you mention here needs to start there.

    • Michael Forsyth says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. The poor, poor state of government education can be laid firmly at the feet of the ANC and the teacher unions. SATDU will not allow assessment of their teachers, the teachers are not prepared to undertake any extramural activities (contrast this to former Model C schools where the teachers do go the extra mile).

      The ANC has also chopped and changed with their education methodologies. These methodologies place an undue burden on teachers to form fill and tick boxes instead of getting on with TEACHING. The unions require members to attend union meetings during school hours and many teachers themselves use school as a time to run their own businesses. This has been well documented in the press.

      My heart does go out to the underprivileged students/learners who are left facing unemployment and no future directly as a result of the criminal ANC.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Politicians send their kids to private schools. The government is responsible for decent schools and education. Assistance from private schools is not enough to fix the problem. The ANC is well aware of the problem but doesn’t care: an uneducated population is much easier to lie to and manipulate.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Neither the Department of Basic Education nor the educator unions has it in them to formulate a modern education strategy for the country that will lift education out of the quagmire it is in, The private sector is dependent on educated employees to prosper. Why is the private sector silent on education and skills development? They could raise funds to establish a specialist working gr0up to formulate viable proposals to put to government and the relevant unions. Unless we start addressing education inequality, the country is doomed by the prospect of increasingly extreme inequality.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    The budget is there but the management of that budget is in the hands of people who are both inept and, in many instances, corrupt.
    People are not born of equal ability or attitude, so there will always be inequality.
    Private schools do a great deal, and could do more, to provide mentorship, access to unused facilities etc, but this can only be of any value at scale, if we fix the public sector first.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Apart from overcrowding and lack of facilities etc the poorer pupils also have homes that aren’t conducive to study,communities with no hope and they often come to school hungry. Poor nourishment is a cause of brain deficiencies.
    Their parents often haven’t had a good school experience and can’t help them much either. The government has failed these children year after year. It’s heartbreakingly clear that education and children are not their priority.

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