Thursday 22 February 2024

What role does education play in the public discourse and in shaping South Africa’s future state?

In the second of a series of Lenten reflections on the challenges facing South African society, motivated by our readings in the Lectionary, the Archbishop focuses on education.

At their heart, our current Lenten readings call us to set our houses in order, engaging in deeper introspection to help us boldly proclaim God’s name in the healing of our society. This week, I am asking: As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our democracy, what is the role education should play in the discourse around the future of our country?

In the words of Madiba, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And Barbara Jordan, an American educator, lawyer and politician noted that, “Education remains the key to both economic and political empowerment.”

When I was inaugurated as Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, I asserted that the purpose of education should be to develop the ability of students to practise discernment and to be part of the solution, not the problem, as we confront the world’s challenges; in other words it should be about teaching wisdom.

As we approach the national and provincial elections on May 29, 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 schoolbooks 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.

  • As has been revealed recently, four of every five learners in Grade Four are under-performing 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 really 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 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 moneyed 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 a number of 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.

  • Moreover, we need tertiary education at all levels to equip graduates to meet the needs of our economy, not those of economies overseas.

  • Lastly, 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 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. To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to enter a discourse on humanism but at the same time to negate people is a lie.

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 it 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.

††Thabo Cape Town

Friday 16 February 2024

What is business’s role in public discourse and what is its responsibility in shaping South Africa’s future state?

During Lent, the Archbishop is issuing a series of reflections on the challenges facing different sections of South African society, motivated by our readings in the Lectionary and based on conversations with and inputs from influential leaders in their fields. His first reflection focuses on the business sector.

One of my greatest disappointments about our country today is how cynical we have become, particularly when it comes to the role of business in public discourse. One of the lessons my father taught me that has stuck with me was never to become a cynic, reflected in the saying: “A cynic is one who, when smelling the scent of flowers, looks around for a coffin. Don’t ever become that person.”

Those who know me know that I am the antithesis of a cynic. Yet, as I travel the country, the overwhelming reverberations of the conversations I have are that cynicism captures the national conversation, spirit and attitude in almost all segments of our South African society, particularly business. This has become the spark, the catalyst for a series of editorial challenges I plan to preach and write about over the next six weeks. My goal is to share with you my thoughts on the opportunities the various sectors of our country have to impact positively our upcoming election in the short term and shape our future in the long term.

As we enter the season of Lent, our lections stress that true fasting seeks, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free, which in South Africa today means growing our economy with the objective of sharing its fruits more equitably.

Where to start? Perhaps it is no more complicated than having the courage simply to say: “Enough is enough!” In society we always pay a penalty for indifference and inaction. Unquestionably, taking action always involves risks, but adopting a position of comfortable inaction carries much greater risks.

In South Africa, we have long had a love-hate relationship with business and the success that can be derived from it. Thirty years after winning our political liberation, despite falling short of our objective of achieving economic liberation, our relationship with business has improved considerably.

For many it has grown from hate to love, largely because it has been seen as democratic—ethically conducted, it spreads its benefits broadly, and success in it is often viewed as a matter of merit, not just luck. Not only that: it has become the tie that not only binds the culture but defines it to a large degree.

As a result, many South Africans have developed an almost religious belief in the power of business. The durability of the business community through all our country’s crises and the vortex of governmental corruption, ineptness and incapacity has led to the belief that the sector can remedy all of our challenges and deliver the country to the promised land. This is testimony to the quality of many, but not all, of our business leaders—especially of those who represent quality of character, make values-based decisions and genuinely have South Africa’s best interests in both their hearts and their minds.

Business has in many areas been seen positively for the last two decades or more, but it will be viewed positively only as long as it is seen as capable of delivering the goods. The great question is, how will the business world cope if and when it cannot meet everybody’s needs? What is it going to be like for people if the bottom falls out?

Today, as our economy keeps cooling, as the government displays its inadequacy, and as we contemplate an election in which we have an unprecedented range of new parties to choose from, I believe that 60 million South Africans would like business leaders to contemplate and answer a number of questions:

    • How can I help create equal opportunities for all?
    • How can my business work to overcome the continuing inequality in a society which claims to want to eliminate it?
    • How can I reduce the polarisation being pushed by some political parties?
    • Given the positive attitude to business of many young people, how can companies be a catalyst for championing youth voter registration?
    • How can companies use their political influence responsibly?
    • What role can business play in exemplifying courage in meeting these challenges?

There are three practical steps business can take to address these questions:

The first step is probably the most difficult. It involves the business community showing its spine by refusing to do any business with the state without government making a tangible shift towards meeting its responsibilities, addressing inequalities of opportunity and service delivery, and making demonstrable efforts to root out systemic corruption.

The second step is for companies to create working groups at top executive and board level to draw up corporate political responsibility strategies, as distinct from social responsibility strategies, focusing on the company’s role in creating the architecture for the future state of South Africa.

The third step is to have these executive-level committees answer the six questions that I’ve asked above, and to consider whether it isn’t time for South African companies to rethink, redefine and reset their corporate social responsibility strategies to align with corporate political responsibility strategies.

In urging business to take this path, I am conscious that corporate leaders face complex questions about whom they represent and on what basis. Big business has traditionally avoided taking overt political stances; after all, why would they want to alienate potential customers? But in reality, the line demarcating business from politics has never been more than a convenient fiction — one that becomes less credible with each passing year.

In other parts of the world, companies are urged to balance the interests of all their stakeholders, not just shareholders but also their staff, their customers and their potential customers among the wider population. But the desire to balance stakeholder interests and speak up for employees or customers on high-stakes societal questions is colliding with the realities of divided, polarised workforces, political dysfunction, and anger about corporate hypocrisy.

What is needed are considered and deliberate strategies for speaking up. Lacking both the authority and the mechanisms to advocate or represent everyone’s interests in a coherent way, corporate leaders risk undermining both their businesses and other societal institutions when they claim that they can — or feel that they must.

My friends in business tell me that companies tend to make three big mistakes when setting and publicising societal, political, and environmental priorities.

Firstly, they aspire to speak out on too many issues to appease stakeholders in the short term. Making a public statement is often a way to compensate for, or distract from, a lack of meaningful action. Secondly, organisations fail to set tight priorities, ending up with a laundry list of too many goals and aspirations. When companies suggest that they can address every relevant issue, they over-promise and under-deliver, fuelling impatience and diminishing trust. Thirdly, senior leadership teams tend to set strategy and goals in isolation from the rest of their workforce or delegate the task to teams of consultants.

Business experts urge that changing the way companies determine their priorities—and whom they involve—can correct all three errors. They need to listen to a wide range of concerns and opinions, including those of their employees, then focus on the handful of issues they are truly capable of prioritising.

In South Africa, we are seeing strong external as well as internal drivers that are forcing companies to define themselves as social and political actors in addition to their traditional role as economic engines. Whether leadership teams like it or not, putting one’s head in the sand is no longer a viable option. Perceptive and innovative businesses move proactively with these trends and turn them into opportunities and competitive advantages.

Of course, we need to be careful not to expect business – or for that matter government, or any other institution – to create heaven on earth. When we put too much confidence in any worldly system, it is bound to disappoint us at some point. So business, and the great striving that accompanies it, will continue to be one of the most significant forces in South African culture, but it will always struggle against people’s need for a perspective that is beyond these worlds. We all have to get used to that tension.

It seems to me that at our best, in South Africa we have held individualism and a communitarian spirit in creative tension. We need to keep doing that if we are to maintain social stability. In my view, we are in a time in this country in which our faith in capitalism has combined with a radical sense of individualism to create a dangerous degree of selfishness. It is expressed in the sense, “I have got mine; you get yours. I am going to hold on to mine, and I will support a system that allows you to hold onto yours, but I am not going to share any of mine.” Even worse, there are political and government leaders who justify corruption with the phrase, “It's our turn to eat.” Those ways of thinking corrupt capitalism, putting a sharp, mean face on a system that has the capacity to do great good.

If you treat success in business as life’s ultimate goal, then it becomes a great, glowering, impressive, but empty and futile, tin god. Business must be a means, not the end. 

††Thabo Cape Town