Poor education keeps most of population in servitude

The current dependence on a small wealthy elite is not healthy and does not augur well for the country’s future stability and prosperity

Business Day March 2017

Despite, and maybe because of, nearly a quarter-century of employment equity, black economic empowerment (BEE) and populist promises of social transformation, economic power remains concentrated in a small elite who become richer and more powerful while the economy stagnates, unable to provide jobs to new entrants and resulting in one of the most unequal and corrupt societies in the world — with no improvement in sight.

If the government had appreciated and built the economic foundations of an effective basic education system, as the Asian countries did after colonialism, the existing economic elite would now have serious competition. But they are in demand and as key to the economy as before.

Instead, cosmetic variables, material status and satisfying the authorities are valued above building skills, creating jobs and wealth, inevitably resulting in rent-seeking, patronage and corruption. BEE has encouraged people unproductively to blame others for what is wrong: as if one group must succeed at the others’ expense. The outdated 1980s slogan “liberation before education” seems to be implicit in this philosophy. But poor education, more than anything, maintains the status quo and keeps the bulk of the population in servitude.

BUSTransformation advocates dismiss any mention of competence and experience as a euphemism for racism, which causes the elite to feel beleaguered, defensive and even hostile, while paradoxically the country’s reliance on their skill, capital and taxes increases.

The ironic result of the liberation-before-education philosophy and the mess created by arrogant cadre deployment — in municipalities, the South African Social Security Agency, state-owned enterprises and Gauteng’s health department — is an unacknowledged critical dependence on establishment lawyers, consultants and other “experts”. They profit handsomely diagnosing and trying to fix the administrative and engineering mess in local government and dealing with the unintended consequences of the government’s disdain for real expertise.

SA has a rich history of mostly white immigrants, many of whom came during apartheid. While spared the privations and indignity of racial discrimination, many arrived penniless, unable to speak English and with neither reputation nor social standing. Yet, they advanced substantially through the reasonable education system offered under apartheid.

Transformation ideology aside, respect and even reverence of education have long been part of SA’s culture. The celebrated impact of mission school education of the founders of the country’s democracy, the lengths to which ordinary South Africans have been willing to go to get their children into good schools (schools in Soweto are emptying, while parents enrol their children into former Model C schools with good standards and properly trained teachers) and the tradition of modern and conventional private schools are also very much part of the national ethos.

Two generations of scholars and at least one generation of teachers have passed through the system since democracy. Yet, despite an increasing education budget, the systemic dysfunction in township and rural schools has not been tackled: a clear result of the liberation-before-education mind-set that fails to recognise the connection between responsibility and progress.

Researcher Anna Orthofer says that “the public education system is generally so poor that only 4% of those who enter school are likely to get a tertiary degree — and most of those students attended former Model C or private schools”. This suggests that success at university, and by implication in professions, has nothing to do with race, but could be tackled by a disciplined, thorough overhaul of the basic education system.

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Yet, vested interests in the South African Democratic Teachers Union protect dysfunctional schools and teachers and are allowed to compromise and thwart viable and sustainable economic growth and success.

Until education is prioritised over political expediency, the goal of liberation, especially as it applies to economic and social liberation, is likely to remain elusive.

University students inspired by the misguided liberation-before-education philosophy express their frustration by destroying infrastructure and railing against old statues of dead men as well as destroying art because it looks as if it is colonial. The past cannot be changed and destruction of educational infrastructure and artefacts rather than focusing on substance will make no difference to their cause. How the problem is fixed is important now.

All South Africans should have access to quality basic education that allows them to develop their potential and a fair chance to get ahead.

It would be unworkable and unreasonable to expect the basic education system to transform overnight.

However, at least the problem of a dysfunctional schooling system should be acknowledged and tackled. This would help society to take responsibility for its own progress; to invest in the future, learning from the mistakes of the past.

The current dependence on a small wealthy elite, albeit one that is increasingly racially diverse, and worrying about status, categories and cosmetics is not healthy and does not augur well for the country’s future stability and prosperity.

Yudelowitz is joint MD at YSA and author of Smart Leadership.


Neglected: While pupils are taught in harsh conditions because education has not been prioritised over political expediency, economic and social liberation will probably remain elusive, the writer says. Picture: THE REP