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

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