Defend Truth


Education is life itself, but South Africa is educationally bankrupt


Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

Education can shape the coming generations into virtuous, informed citizens committed to achieving equality, and can provide our children and grandchildren with pathways to solving political and societal problems we ourselves are unable to resolve.

As we approach the general elections on 29 May, we ought to place high priority on demanding of our national and provincial parties and candidates how they plan to deal with the crisis in education in South Africa.

It is not overstating the challenge we face to declare that our country is educationally bankrupt:

  • While the government has good policies on issues such as school infrastructure, delivery on those policies in townships and to the rural poor is dangerously inadequate, with woefully too few proper toilets, too little clean water and, importantly, a lack of school books and textbooks;
  • There is a yawning gap between class sizes in overcrowded predominantly black schools and those in middle-class schools in formerly white areas;
  • Our curricula give far too little attention to the need to teach our children about ethics, morality, values-based decisions and appreciating the consequences of their actions; and
  • As has been revealed recently, four of every five learners in Grade Four are underperforming when it comes to reading for meaning.

Of course, since the advent of democracy, we have achieved better access to basic education, and we need to celebrate teachers who make the best of teaching and learning under tough conditions.

But we must also challenge our political parties on exactly how they propose to improve funding, especially for no-fee schools in poorer areas, and to achieve equality for all in the provision of education.

What worries me is whether the politicians truly have the commitment necessary to improve the quality of education.

A few years ago, the commentator Moeletsi Mbeki concluded in a report on voting patterns and the educational level of voters that it is in the best interests of the ruling party not to have an educated electorate.

This was troubling to me at the time and remains so today. 

It suggests that it suits political leaders, the monied and the powerful if we as citizens – and especially black South Africans – are prevented from becoming an informed electorate.

It goes without saying, but is worthy of repeating, that to be uneducated is not to be fully free. 

Only the educated are truly free. 

Ignorance and illiteracy render voters susceptible to populist politics, manipulation and coercion, serving the interests of demagogues and the morally corrupt.

Organising one’s followers means listening to them, not manipulating them. Leaders who insist on imposing decisions on people do not liberate, nor are they liberated: instead, they oppress.

Is the desire of politicians for voters who can be easily manipulated the reason education is pushed to the back burner when it comes to election time? 

In this election season, where is the dialogue, the debate, the discourse about the condition of our education system and the future state of South Africa?

My conversations with educators – from parents and learners to teachers and activists, to a member of a governing body and the chairperson of a university council – tell me that in this debate, we ought to be challenging several different players:

  • As well as calling on parties to outline their policy proposals, we must hold the government’s feet to the fire on how it will overcome the failure to teach learners to read well enough to equip them to cope in our capitalist-driven society;
  • We need to challenge business to support the closing of our country’s education gaps;
  • We need our universities to produce social reform activists who speak up, register to vote and use their voices to shape our country’s future;
  • We need tertiary education at all levels to equip graduates to meet the needs of our economy, not those of economies overseas; and
  • Teachers have a role in unmasking and defeating the agendas of those whose interests are served by the status quo.

Some years ago I attended a high-level school on governance, economics and management in Hong Kong, which looked at how to achieve a new “economy of life”. 

Such an economy would replace the current global governance of money with financial systems which are less exploitative and share resources and income more equitably.

We need to develop initiatives such as this to help our young people dare to challenge old stereotypes and find new ways of making an ever more complex and fast-paced world into an ethical and sustainable place for all.

And I strongly believe it is the responsibility of teachers to take sides in this struggle – part of what I call the “New Struggle”, one that replaces the old Struggle against apartheid and works to eliminate the inequalities in our society which have been perpetuated in democratic South Africa; a struggle which favours the “rag-pickers” – the poor, the exploited and the downtrodden – and stands up to injustice, as the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, argued in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Because of the admiration our communities have for our teachers, their activism is essential. 

They need to join civil society in raising awareness through protests and peaceful mobilisation. 

Failing to take sides and engage on behalf of the oppressed makes the teacher simply another minion of the corporate world. 

Education is not only a preparation for life, but life itself. 

It can shape the coming generations into virtuous, informed citizens committed to achieving equality, and can provide our children and grandchildren with pathways to solving political and societal problems we ourselves are unable to resolve.

A peaceful and sustainable future hinges on our willingness to confront many of the assumptions we take for granted and upon which our system of inequality rests. 

There can be no true democracy without all voices being heard and respected. Such mutual respect benefits all — the oppressor and the oppressed.

Equality does not mean sameness; it means each of us enjoys equal freedom to explore and pursue our dreams and aspirations without limiting the dreams and aspirations of others. 

That may sound idealistic, even utopian, but that is a lot better than the dystopian miasma of mass poverty and exploitation that we are headed for now.

And overhauling our education system is critical to achieving equality. DM 

This article is one of a series examining various sectors of South African society on the 30th anniversary of democracy and ahead of the May 29 election.


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  • Stuart Kaptein says:

    I’ve been saying this for years. I was called a conspiracy theorist for saying it. However, I stand by this: The ANC know that it’s almost exclusively the uneducated that vote for them. So they have systematically destroyed the education system, in an effort to remain in power, thereby lengthening their time at the feeding trough…

    • Ben Harper says:

      Unfortunately people can’t handle the truth! It was by no means a conspiracy theory but but fact, destroy education, keep the voting masses dumb so they’re not capable of critical thought and then feed them garbage and lies to keep them in their grasp

  • Ajay San says:

    Excellent article and says what our priorities should be.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    To be anti-education / freedom as the ANC has proven itself to be is evidently the logical reason why cadre deployment is anti- meritocracy and anti-efficient service delivery. We need to hear more from you Arch! Viva, arch, Viva!

  • Stef Coetzee says:

    If you do not tend the seedlings, you will not harvest the crop.
    Thank you Archbishop, from the aging son of two teachers from the last century who devoted their lives to education.
    We pray for wisdom in our future leaders to invest in education for all thereby securing more positive outcomes for all

  • Liesl Couperthwaite says:

    As a retired teacher in a previously Model C school I was privileged to be able to teach young people who did have access to all manner of information. What scared me is how unmotivated they were to do so. In general the motivation was to get rich as fast as possible. The love of knowledge was missing. When I tried to cultivate some interest in the history of science or biology I was very often met with total disinterest.
    Parents only wanted the children to go to University and believed that that was the answer to everything. The sad reality is that the Government also did away with the so very important nursing colleges, teachers’ training colleges and other such institutions. Youngsters who are not academically minded but very creative or handy are pushed into directions they cannot achieve in.
    Rural schools and n0- fee scholars who do not have the advantages of those I taught have very little hope and often stay at the bottom of the literal and mathematical pile. They are the most likely to be convinced that politicians will improve their lot. Sadly there are very many of these youngsters.

  • Steve Du Plessis says:

    Interesting article from a moral and intellectual minnow

  • Alan Oswald says:

    I agree fully with the article, but politics, politicians and Unions generally drive the agenda for their own good or faction, not the countries. Apartheid allowed poor quality education to the masses, and good quality to the “privileged”. This cannot be denied. The “new” Government has done exactly the same and showed no desire to improve the situation by their actions of closing down teacher training facilities, keeping poorly trained staff on the payroll, not re-educating them to teach to modern standards, and burdening teachers with unmanageable sized classes. (We have a mixed race nursery school with small classes where the non white kids regularly outperform, and continue to do well in the formal education sector). The sad result is that those children of all races who do well at school feel targeted (for abuse of privilege?), with many leaving the country soon after qualifying, for places where their skills are acknowledged and rewarded, often at salaries higher than those paid here and others because they cannot get jobs in the current declining economy. These people are the future of our country. They are being demonised for their success when they should be praised and welcomed as part of the solution. These people have the ability to create jobs and earn enough to pay taxes, which are sorely needed to be ploughed back into the education system, right down to the most important ECD years of 3-5. I cannot see where the funds will come from though. So tragic.

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