Defend Truth


ANC government has consigned countless SA children to a lifetime of catch-up and struggle


Professor Mark Tomlinson is co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. These are his personal views.

To fully understand the neglect of our children by the ANC government, we need to consider that it is in fact driven by a particular kind of prejudice against children. Not benign neglect driven by limited resources. Not competing priorities. But active prejudice.

When do corruption and ineptitude signify something more than simply corruption and ineptitude? The apartheid state was of course morally and financially corrupt in every respect. But it was its brutal racism that was its most damning indictment. Is it possible that the corruption, ineptitude, and inaction of the current ANC government hides a darker manifestation? Something most apparent is the way it treats South Africa’s children.

Every day brings fresh horrors and persistent dark comedy. We are an upper-middle income country, currently not in a state of war, but where 24 people have recently died from cholera — one of the most preventable diseases that exist.

ANC councillors in the Ditsobotla Municipality have been described as carrying knives and stabbing each other at council meetings. It is not inconceivable that the entire municipal sector (except for Western Cape) may collapse financially.

And this, while Naledi “I used to be able to think” Pandor, mouths absurdities to justify offering her government’s support to a sociopathic fascist who delights in murdering Ukrainian children while putting $32-billion of trade and investment at risk simply because it is more difficult to steal from that trough than simply taking blood money from Vladimir Putin to cover the salaries of Luthuli House.

But you know what, most eligible voters backed the ANC in 2019. We knew then that Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Fikile Mbalula had senior leadership positions within the Jacob Zuma kleptocracy.  What did we expect? That the rot, incompetence and looting would end with the abomination that is Jacob Zuma?

We need to shoulder some of the blame. But what if you are under 18, and denied the vote in South Africa?

What might you be thinking, given that it is your future that the ANC is looting?

Clutching of Pirls

In the last fortnight, we discovered that in 2021, according to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), 81% of Grade 4 children in South Africa are unable to read for meaning — on a test administered in our 11 official languages. As a comparison, Grade 4s in SA are three years behind Grade 4s in Brazil — a similar country in terms of GDP and inequity.

In 2016 — the last time this study was administered — 78% of Grade 4 children in SA could not read for meaning. Dr Nic Spaull from Stellenbosch University has pointed out that one of the solutions proffered to respond to the 2016 figures was to place “did you know” messages inside Chappies wrappers. He went on to say “you can’t make this stuff up”.  

When Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga responded, it was to say that “we must not be discouraged but rather have confidence in our efforts to surpass current limitations and raise the skills of African children, despite the challenges posed by limited resources.”


Verbiage, almost poetic in its meaninglessness. She will no doubt speak of resource constraints. But of course, resources are not the issue — ask Eskom, SAA and any other state-owned enterprise. Then, as is the case now, no one with their eyes half open at the time could not have seen this, and more importantly how perilous the state of education from Grade 5 onwards was.

How could they not have realised that if 78% of children could not read for meaning then the only possible response was a South African Marshall Plan for education. We needed an extra R10/15/20-billion to be spent on fixing the problem. At least. Per annum. Instead, we got Chappies wrappers.

Much has been written about how incompetence, corruption, and apathy are responsible for this generational catastrophe. Of course, these all play a role. But they also lack a large measure of explanatory power.

State prejudice

I am proposing that to fully understand the neglect of our children by the ANC government, we need to consider that it is in fact driven by a particular kind of prejudice against children. Not benign neglect driven by limited resources. Not competing priorities. But active prejudice.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in her book “Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children”, defines childism as prejudice and negative attitudes against children — a type of age-based discrimination. Childism finds its equivalence in sexism, racism and ableism. Key to all these “isms” is an underlying assumption of inferiority to some other reference group — men, white people, or able-bodied persons.

J’Accuse…! I accuse you, President Ramaphosa, of childism.

You and your government have, in effect, told hundreds of thousands of children that they will never meet their developmental potential. You have told them to reduce their expectations of future possibilities. And instead of urgently acting to solve the problem, you have squandered opportunities and prevaricated.

I am under no illusion of what it might take to solve the problem. I am not angry that you have not solved the problem. It is a complex and sticky problem given a hundred or more years of colonialism and apartheid.

But I am angry that you have simply given up trying and do not take the problem seriously. For this, you are guilty of childism.

You have consigned countless South African children to a lifetime of catch-up and struggle, because in the very best scenario, you simply failed to act. In the worst (and more likely case) you simply do not care, or you actively believe that children are inferior to adults — the apotheosis of childism. I accuse you, President Ramaphosa, of childism.

And please do not plumb the depths and attempt to argue that what I am saying is false or insulting, positing the child support grant as your evidence. 

The child support grant was initiated by a president and an ANC that bears next to no resemblance to your current abomination of a movement/party. You keep the child grant because it would be political suicide to drop it — not because you believe South African children are deserving of respect, rights or any substantive government action.

What happened to the ANC that brought down one of the vilest and most deeply corrupt systems of the 20th century? An apartheid system quite literally built on educational inequity and denying black children a quality education and a decent shot at a future.

The irony is breathtaking. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Buchan says:

    Actually 50% plus of the population did so by voting for anc.

    • Cecilia Wedgwood says:

      The cry in 1976 was “ liberation before education”! The consequences are generations of uneducated
      voters or, at best, non-voters.

    • Hermann Funk says:

      Incorrect; the ANC is a minority party since a huge portion of eligible voters chose not to cast their votes.

    • Hermann Funk says:

      The SA educational system is a crime against humanity for the majority of young children, brought to you by an arrogant, incompetent and totally corrupt regime.

    • William Stucke says:

      Actually, 37.47% of eligible voters voted for the ANC. That’s way under 50% of the population. The scary part is that 54% of our population was too young to vote in 2019. And some of these are the young adults who will be voting in 2024 and onwards. People who can’t read, so are easy to lie to.

      Prof Tomlinson is completely correct. It’s a deliberate strategy to keep the population ignorant, and by failing to provide sufficient nutrition, stupid, too. So very sad.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    A very sobering article which opens up one of the great festering sores afflicting this country, and especially its children. That we have such an appalling education system in the 21st Century when we have a wealth of educational expertise – just check out the private, NGO and academic sectors – is a desperate comment on the absolute incompetence, and lack of care, of our government, and particularly in this case, of our Education Minister for 13 years. Given the political will it would be possible to turn the whole thing round in 2 years, through a massive and intensive Literacy Improvement Programme for all learners in all grades in all public schools. This would require the DBE to work closely with all available partners and simply just do it. Unlike our Minister (with her ‘lack of concrete evidence’ nonsense), most of us do recognise that there is a wealth of experience around the world in developing reading skills, which we can draw on to make the change that is urgently necessary. And with learners equipped with good basic literacy the whole field of learning will open up for them. This would be a game changer for the whole country – but the political will?

  • Marcela Reynoso says:

    I’m fully agree but I feel that academics like you should have proposals
    It’s not enough to enunciate a problem, that no doubt we all know, we need a strict curriculum of of basic education, and to me the first measure should be one language for all
    You mentioned Brazil, where there are many indigenous languages but the language for education is Portuguese
    As a South American, I can tell that one of the facts of a better education is the almost common language of the continent
    Unfortunately, I can’t brag now, South American standards had been affected by the same issues that in South Africa
    It’s easy, children doesn’t give votes

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:

      Marcela, I know you were responding to Mark, but just to say that a group of us are working on the Literacy Improvement Programme I mentioned. It’s early days, but we realise the urgency and really want it to roll out over 2024/2025. We can’t wait for more DBE inaction

  • Ginny Swart says:

    This might sound flippant, but if those jokes inside Chappies bubblegum rappers actually affected the ability of children to read… Here is an opportunity for some big supermarket to hand out folded bits of paper to kids and when they open them there is a joke. Or a bit of meaningful information about our planet. Or a good lifestyle suggestion. (With a tiny logo underneath so they can claim it as advertising costs) This might work! You can thank me later.

  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    Lose the assessments and bring back the teaching!
    Grade 4s are expected to master summarising, a higher order skill that I STARTED teaching in Grade 10 back in the day.
    Reading, (w)riting and rithmatic maybe have their place.

  • Ian McClure says:

    Another ” Lost Generation” courtesy of SADTU and ANC – under our noses .
    Perhaps hoping they will eventually vote ANC .

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