In this piece from our Writers Bloc project, our collection of essays about education systems around the world, Zukiswa Wanner explores the politics of South African education.
Photograph by Zukiswa Wanner and Phumudzo.
By **Zukiswa Wanner**
During the course of my research on education for Writers Bloc, I went to the North West of South Africa with a friend. Her sixteen-year-old sister, who was in Grade 10, had written a list of some school necessities she needed her to purchase. The list read:
3 A4 Notebooks
1 A3 Notebook
My friend, in her sister’s presence, showed me this list. I asked the young girl about the spelling of “Dikshinari.” “I was just joking. I decided to spell it in seTswana.”
I gave her a paper and a pen. “Could you spell it in English for me this time around?” She did not do much better. “Dikshinary” is what she wrote.
My friend told me that her sister had been earning excellent grades in Maths and Science. There has been a big push for Sciences in South Africa, most of which, in her rural village school, is done in mother tongue instruction.
Nothing wrong with that. Except that with the excellent results that she will probably earn in Maths and Science, Refilwe will likely be accepted in the Engineering Faculty of one of South Africa’s top universities (she wants to study Chemical Engineering), her lectures will be solely in English, and she may find it hard to cope. Like a significant percentage of students who start university, she will either drop out, or, if persistent, take more than the normal four years to get her Bachelors.
Ask any South African resident observer what they feel the greatest failing of their nation has been post the first democratic elections of 1994 and chances are that half your respondents will mention education. Why would education be a problem in a nation that has generally ranked in the top ten continentally for Human Development in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance since the advent of democracy?
First, a brief background lesson on South Africa’s governance in education. Each of the country’s nine provinces has a provincial minister (MEC) for Education who reports to the Premier and the Cabinet Minister of Education. Prior to 2009, there was a sole Ministry of Education, but since the Jacob Zuma Presidency, the Education portfolio has been split into Basic, which caters to primary and high schools, and Higher Education, which focuses on tertiary education. My field research took me through five of the country’s nine provinces and various primary and high schools. If it doesn’t sound too simplistic, it’s clear to me from my investigation that the problem of the South African education system is political: the politics of language and the politics of class mixed up in the country’s unfortunate historical circumstances which continue to haunt its citizens.
Politics of Language
As a parent, I am certainly not one of those who advocate use of English at the expense of the mother tongue. Indeed, my six-year-old son speaks passable isiXhosa and has an impressive understanding of his grandmother’s language, Karanga. I take umbrage with parents who say proudly “My son/daughter only speaks English,” or “Yhu! Your child speaks English so well.” And yet, whether I or anyone else likes it or not, English is one of the most spoken languages in the world, alongside Chinese and Spanish, and if the point of education is to equip children for the future then we should stop politicizing language. There is, of course, room for mother tongue instruction, but this should be done while encouraging children to read and read widely in English as well as the mother tongue to ensure that there is a broadening of English vocabulary as a future tool of instruction in Higher Education. Having once taught at tertiary I know how this lack of basic English can destroy otherwise intelligent students’ self-esteem. I had students who would not ask questions or contribute in class and would end up not getting the instructions right because they were ashamed that they were inarticulate in English.
A house would cost almost three quarters of a teacher’s salary. What then can keep teachers in non-fee paying schools motivated when they are busy worrying about unpaid bills?
The politics of language goes the other way too. During apartheid, the national budget for a white child’s education was equivalent to the budget for 10 black children. It goes without saying that the government schools in the formerly all-white neighborhoods, commonly known in South Africa as Model C schools, were better equipped in 1994, and many remain so to this day. This has resulted in many parents, who hope for a better education for their children even when they stay in high density areas like Umlazi and Langa, registering their children in the former white neighborhoods. The schools that instructed in English during apartheid have been flooded, but the schools that taught in Afrikaans have found a way to create a new form of apartheid. A linguistic one. As Afrikaans is/was spoken by many of the white people of South Africa, some of these schools have maintained Afrikaans as a primary language of instruction, (unlike with black languages, Stellenbosch University has many of its classes instructed in Afrikaans) thus using this as a means to not take in black students—many of whom, post-apartheid, have not had to learn Afrikaans at primary level. Although these Afrikaans-speaking schools are state funded, they generally maintain the right to exclude by virtue of language, and any suggestion that they perhaps use English has often resulted in marches and articles by Afrikaner nationalists of how the government is insensitive to their culture and their language and is trying to remove it. The result is often that politically correct leadership bows down and poor children are the losers in this equation as they have to stay at township schools, many of which are still as under-equipped as during the apartheid years.
Politics of Class
On Tuesday January 4 2011, the leading South African broadsheet The Star’s headline ran: NEAR PERFECT SCORE. It turned out more than 98 percent of students who sat for the Independent Examination Board (IEB) at matric level have yet again passed with flying colors. A day later the National Senior Certificate (NSC) results were announced—67.8 percent of students who sat for the NSC have passed. Taking a look at these results one might ask, “So, what’s the big deal? Sure, 67.8 percent is no 98 percent, but it is still a pretty impressive pass rate for a nation, right?” This is, after all, a 7 percent increase from 2009 and marks only the third time since 1994 that such a large increase has been recorded (especially impressive since it occurred during a schools calendar that was disrupted by the hosting of the World Cup and the debilitating teachers’ strike thereafter).
However, two days later the Mail & Guardian published an article titled “Matric Pass Welcomed and Questioned.” It turned out the NSC watchdog body uMalusi adjusted the marks for difficult subjects to allow more children to pass. M&G took uMalusi to court to find out how much adjustments had been done, given that the body went as low as making 30 percent a pass rate in certain subjects. Three out of ten. Yes, really. Herein lies the politics of class.
IEB examinations are undertaken in mostly expensive private schools. These are the sort of schools that the very Ministers who are leading education probably send their children and grandchildren. In these private schools, classes are small, parents sometimes have contact details of their child’s teacher, after inter-schools competition there is tea and cake, and Open Days and Parent Teacher Meetings are social occasions. Children from IEB schools generally perform better at tertiary as they are well-versed in independent thinking as opposed to the regurgitation of information from text books.
NSC on the other hand is the examination that students from government schools take. My son starts Grade 1 next year. Battling with the question of whether to take him to a private or government school, I consulted with a few of my friends. One of them, Mooketsi, who went through the government school system, told me how, in his matric year, there was a focus on going through past examination papers in the five years prior.
He passed with flying colors, but told me he had serious struggles once he was at tertiary. So he advised that I think carefully. “I was in a poor neighborhood, but perhaps if you put Jama in a good school in a good schooling district, it will not matter much whether it is government or private school. But if you continue staying in your working class neighborhood, I would suggest that private is the way to go,” he said seriously.
My travels attest to this. At Tshivase Secondary School in Limpopo for instance, classes were ridiculously large with one class of Grade 8s having as many as 107 students. Tshivase is considered a top performing school in the Limpopo province, but it is easy to see, with such large numbers, how some students can fall through the cracks. While on a Read SA campaign in Port Elizabeth, I had a discussion with the principal of Loyiso High School in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. She said because her school was known for achieving high pass rates, there were students coming in from other schools in Grade 10. While the school may feel they are stretched for resources to accommodate the incoming students, any objection to doing so would result in the provincial government taking away some of their teachers and redeploying them to schools that had more students.
There is also the problem of teachers’ salaries. A profession that was considered middle class during apartheid is now working class. For teachers in private schools whose salaries get subsidized by parents, most government schools, unless they are fee paying, do not pay teachers enough. Teachers earn as little as US$500 a month before tax, with a housing allowance of about US$100. While this may not seem bad, it is dismally low given the cost of living. In the working class neighborhood I live in, for instance, renting a room is US$200 a month. A house would cost almost three quarters of a teacher’s salary. What then can keep teachers in non-fee paying schools motivated when they are busy worrying about unpaid bills? On February 23, the Minister of Finance announced an education budget increase of R8 billion (a little over US$1 billion). It would be great if some of that money went to teachers’ salaries.
On a lighter, but no less serious, note, the politics of class can be viewed even through student issues. Last year the country was shocked when a video circulated on popular social networks of a female student having a threesome with two male students on the premises of an urban Johannesburg high school. As two of the students were under the age of consent, the National Prosecuting Authority alerted the country that it would prosecute anyone caught circulating the video.
This year the country was stunned when a report came of a rural high school where 57 female students are pregnant. Therein lie the politics of class.
In the first instance, students had sex on school premises, others took videos of them on their mobile phones and distributed it, and women’s rights’ activists came out and spoke against the rape of the female student by the two young men. A female teacher at the high school informed me that it only became rape when the female student feared her parents may hear about the video. A few students I spoke to, on condition of anonymity, told me that the female student was known for being one of the “bad girls.”
In the second school, some of the teachers were probed for the female students’ pregnancies. Teachers in rural schools have been known to have sexual relations with their students in exchange for basic necessities that the girls may need—sometimes as basic as sanitary napkins. In other circumstances, it has been reported that young girls’ financial situations are so dire that they deliberately get pregnant so that they can access the measly social grant.
The Gini co-efficient shows that South African society is far from being an egalitarian society with the rich being very rich while the poor are very poor. Perhaps the education spending can be spread in such a way that students are given an equal education through the availability of such basic necessities as roofs on schools, more and better feeding schemes in poorer communities, smaller classes, more text books delivered to schools on time, and better pay for teachers.
Blame it on History?
White South Africans have been heard to say black South Africans need to get over apartheid and stop blaming it for everything, while black South Africans will blame their failures where they can on apartheid. So what about education? How much should be blamed on our fractious history and how much should we blame ourselves?
At one school in Durban, the Principal showed me a library with a lot of potential, but he informed me that they kept it locked since they still did not have a librarian after requesting one from the government.
The politics of language, as we’ve already seen, are part of the legacy of apartheid. There is also another angle. This one is rooted within the governing African National Congress, which is the chosen party for the flagship anti-apartheid campaign umbrella United Democratic Front (UDF). The UDF achieved the conscientization and politicization of black South Africans, whether they were youth or workers, through the formation of strong civil society organizations aligned to them. Some of these CSOs were dismantled with the end of apartheid but others remained. Thus we have in schools the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) being as powerful as it is. A writer friend often tells the story of her in-law who was a sloganeering-type member of SADTU and a Vice-Principal at one of the schools in Soweto. He stayed with her for three months. He taught two subjects in high school and at least once a week he was absent from school supposedly because his gout was killing him (“We always ended up having a braai and some beers on those days,” she tells me).
Last year in the national assembly, Congress of the People MP, D.Carter asked the Minister of Education whether her department was taking any steps against teachers reporting late for work, leaving early, continuously staying away from duty, or absenting themselves. If the Minister is to be believed from her reply (as published in Internal Question Paper 21-2010 of National Assembly):
“1. My Department regards a) reporting late for work, b) leaving early, c) continuously staying away from duty or d) absenting themselves for long periods at a time without valid reasons as acts of misconduct and has taken steps in dealing with them. The steps taken are provided for in section 18 of the Employment of Educators Act (EEA), (Act 76 of 1998), read with Schedule 2 of the Act.
2. Educators who c) continuously stay away from duty or d) absent themselves for long periods at a time without valid reasons are also dealt with in terms section 14.1 a) of the EEA. In terms of this Act, educators who have been absent for a period exceeding 14 consecutive days without the permission of the employer and without proving valid reasons are deemed to be discharged from employment.
3. Depending on the circumstances and merits of each case, reported misconduct cases undergo a formal disciplinary processs resulting in sanctions ranging from Counselling and rehabilitations, Verbal warnings, Written warnings, Final written warnings, Fines, Suspensions without pay, Demotions, Dismissals, Not guilty, Cases withdrawn to Combinations of sanctions.”
Now maybe no one reported my friend’s in-law, or if they did, no one found any merit to the case. What I do know is that my friend’s in-law earned a promotion; he is now a school Inspector.
While some of its fights are justified (wage wars, for instance), there can be no explanation other than the endorsement of the ANC every election to justify such actions like the blockading of schools for teachers who wanted to break ranks and teach during last year’s strike. Nor can there be an explanation for teachers being absent from school to attend political rallies or, as happened in 2009, the absence of the Gauteng MEC for Education at a discussion panel on the pass rate and yet her very visible presence on the same day at a political rally. Anywhere else the citizens would have made enough of a noise for the MEC to step down, assuming her political head had not fired her immediately. In South Africa, she was rewarded. The former Gauteng MEC for Education is now Minister of Basic Education in the national government.
Similarly, there was the action of the student political body Congress of South African Students (COSAS). Last year COSAS-aligned students went on a rampage after the SADTU strike, demanding that the mock exams be scrapped, However, there were many students who genuinely wanted to take their examinations. Those who wrote and did not perform to expectations started chanting a 1980s education slogan “pass one, pass all,” as though passing a class is a right and not recognition of merit. Some years back, another similar COSAS march happened where students rampaged through the city of Johannesburg. Their firebrand leader constantly called for press conferences, and the media gave him the attention he sought. After all the disruptions to other students’ schedule, lo and behold, it turned out the COSAS President was not registered with any school (a prerequisite for any COSAS leader) and was therefore NOT a student. However, the young members of the ANC had noted him well, and now Julius Malema is President of the ANC Youth League. Is there any wonder then why, in a well-quoted survey among South African youth, over 60 percent said their dream job was to be a politician?
In spite of all I say above, there are some diamonds in the rough that will not allow any circumstances to deter them from achieving impressive results.
In his 2011 State of the Nation, South African President said of education that the government had decided to focus on the 3Ts—teachers, textbooks, and time. In my research I have realized that in addition to these, there are two other necessary components to achieve good results—parents and students. The former ensure that their children do their assignments and provide whatever support the school requires, while it is only by the will of the latter that good results can be achieved. At one school in Durban, the Principal showed me a library with a lot of potential, but he informed me that they kept it locked since they still did not have a librarian after requesting one from the government.
Meanwhile, at Tshivase Secondary School in Limpopo, the school had a library and a librarian. I asked the Principal of Tshivase whether the government was paying for their librarian, and he told me they had requested one from the Department of Education but, after failing to get one, their School Governing Board, consisting of parents, students, and teachers, had decided to instill a special levy for payment of the librarian as part of students’ tuition. This was the same everywhere I went. For every school I went to that told me the government was not doing anything for them, I also found a school that, no matter how poor its circumstances, instilled such a sense of pride in its student body that whenever anything was required, the alumni, the teachers, the parents, and the student body would work hand in hand to ensure that whatever was required was done. It is through such efforts by these different groups that Cowan High School in Port Elizabeth’s New Brighton township has not only a good pass rate but an IT Centre, Thengwe High School in Limpopo has a 98 percent pass rate, and the North West’s Maruatone Dikobe High School—which is a Quantile 1 no-fee paying school (the lowest rating for schools based on the wealth of the community, with 1 being poorest and 5 being highest)—has a 100 percent pass rate.
It is also through lack of this collective effort that Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga had only 3,897 students passing matric out of the 13,000 pupils who sat for it. Meanwhile, I continue to muse about whether I should take my son to a government school, a private school, or use one of my friends’ addresses so he could attend a government school in a richer neighborhood where I would pay less money than a private school for an equal education. I can only conclude that if politics were removed from education I would not have to worry so much. As it is, I do, and have not made any firm decisions yet.
Zukiswa Wanner was born in Zambia to a South African father and a Zimbabwean mother. Her novels include The Madams, Behind Every Successful Man, and Men of the South. In addition to writing fiction, Zukiswa has also contributed essays to Oprah, Elle, and Juice magazines, and literary reviews and essays to Afropolitan and Sunday Independent. She is also a founding member of the ReadSA initiative, a campaign encouraging South Africa to read South African works.