Monday 9 July 2012

Equal Education National Congress

This address was delivered to the Equal Education National Congress on 8 July 2012.

Honourable guests, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, first, let me begin by thanking you for your invitation to speak to you today. Education is a subject very close to my heart.

It is education, as much as anything, that brought me from the townships of Alexandra to where I am today. As a child, I always loved books, and the ideas they contained – and my family will tell you that I haven’t changed, and still spend far too much time (at least in their opinion!) with my nose between the covers of some book or other. I was very fortunate, in that, even in those turbulent times of the 1970s, at Orlando High School I had teachers who encouraged me – not merely in academic study, but who also mentored me and helped me find a good course for my life.

Today, eighteen years into democracy, with the political turmoil behind us, it is a tragedy that good educational opportunities are not available to every single boy and girl in our country. Not only that, but it still costs young, activist, lives to register our despair at this current system. (May the soul of Ingubo – that courageous Equal Education activist, killed recently – rest in peace. I call for a police investigation into his killing).

We know that it is not an easy task to overcome the legacies of the past – but even taking that into consideration, there is far too much within our current education system that is a crying shame. We all know about the textbooks scandal in Limpopo. We also all too often hear of teachers who turn up late, or drunk, or who fail their learners in other ways – with many of these even boasting of being unionised and protected from any form of discipline for such ill-doing. What an indictment on quality teaching, and on being a union member, this attitude reveals! This should be halted.

Beyond all these is the added problem that even where teachers and learners are striving to do their best, it is often in the face of inadequate facilities: working with deficient classrooms, without electricity or water, with next to no toilets, and other significant lacks. This is to say nothing of those learners who come to school battling with hunger.

Yet it is easy enough to list the problems and throw up our hands in despair. It is another matter to roll up our sleeves, and work, so that we can be part of the solution.

So today I want to pay tribute to Equal Education; to Doron Isaacs, to your colleagues, to your board, to all the "Equalizers" and to all who work in partnership with you. In a short time, you have come a long way, and are making a difference where it is needed. I was proud to have been part of your ‘One School, One Library’ activism, I certainly hold that this is a worthy cause.

Thank you, for all you have done, and for all you are doing. Thank you for setting before us a vision of a better educational system – and not just offering a vision, but providing concrete ways of how we can advocate and work to make it a reality.

Therefore it is entirely fitting that now you should hold this National Congress. Now is a good time to review how far you have come, and of all you have achieved – and to consider together where and how you should focus your resources in going forwards from here. I am delighted to see the range of people present here today. For, as we well know, when it comes to making changes for the better, our efforts are most likely to bear fruit, where those whose situation we desire to improve are fully involved in the debate, in making the plans, in formulating policies, and in implementing the programmes. I am encouraged that one of the tasks of this Congress is to elect a new leadership – a leadership fully representative of all those who are concerned to improve the state of education in this country, especially amongst our poorest communities.

The challenges ahead are great. I am sure you will find that you cannot do everything you would like; and that many of the tasks have no easy solutions and will require perseverance. So now is the time to take stock, and consider how best to focus the resources you have: your time, your energies, your financial and other assets. How can you best direct these, so that they have the maximum lasting impact?

So it is not just a matter of looking at what are the biggest issues facing young people, and facing education, in today’s world, and in our nation. That question must be asked – for it sets the context of your work. But then comes the sharper, more strategic, questions: what are the biggest issues facing Equal Education? Where can you make a unique difference? What are the areas which you should make your priority? What are the specific, tangible, goals that you should set yourselves? And then come the tactics: what needs to be done so you can go forward in achieving these goals?

Let me say again what I said at the beginning – it is easy to be disheartened. But we should not let the problems become our central focus. That will only weigh us down and distract us. We need to keep our eyes on the vision of quality education for all. If this is at the heart of our thinking, talking, planning, it will be the magnet that draws us in the direction in which we want to go and need to go.

Behavioural scientists today tell us that to focus on our vision is far more effective than letting what is holding us back dominate our lives. This should come as no surprise. Almost two thousand years ago, St Paul said much the same, in his letter to the Philippians, writing: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things’ (Phil 4:8).

So then, in the coming days, in your speaking, your planning, in your electing a fresh leadership, and in finalising your Constitution, I offer you my heartiest encouragement, and the assurance of my prayers. May God bless you, and make you a blessing to others. Thank you.