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NATHANIEL LEE | We can fix our country without harking back to apartheid

We must identify the fault-lines and craft a way forward for the sake of our children's future

It is heartbreaking to admit that education under apartheid was much better than at present in terms of efficacy. However, to say this is by no means an expression of nostalgia for the evil system.
It is heartbreaking to admit that education under apartheid was much better than at present in terms of efficacy. However, to say this is by no means an expression of nostalgia for the evil system.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

Two weeks ago, internationally renowned education expert Prof Jonathan Jansen raised political temperatures when, in a TimesLive column, he posed this question, “Be honest, are you better off now than under apartheid?”

He argued in the column that the question could be asked of almost any sector of the social and economic landscape, from education to health to urban housing.

Some readers were offended by this comparison, with some equating it to asking Jews whether they were better off living under Hitler or the incompetence of the South African government. Others felt that indeed SA had become worse since the advent of democracy, citing the high rate of unemployment, poverty, crime and corruption to buttress their argument.

It was not the first time that such a debate had been raised, with luminaries such as Mamphela Ramphele having raised it before with regard to the state of education in our country.

From the outset, it should be said that apartheid was a crime against humanity and that current conditions in general cannot be compared to this dark period in our history. Stripped of sentimentality and emotion however, it can be said that crisis permeates almost every sector of society, including education.

It is heartbreaking to admit that education under apartheid was much better than at present in terms of efficacy. To say this is by no means an expression of nostalgia for the evil system of apartheid.

The reality is that the perennial changes within the education system did not bode well for our country. That there is crisis in education is borne out by the fact that it has become common to have pupils who graduate from primary school without having mastered the basic scholastic skills of reading, writing and counting.

It is also a reality the standard of the much-lauded matric certificate also leaves much to be desired. The crisis is not limited to poor pupil performance, but extends to other variables such as the virtual collapse of discipline by both pupils and teachers.

Furthermore, governance in most schools, especially in the townships, is in a state of dysfunction. To state that even during apartheid, pupils could read, write and count is in no way an attempt to glorify the atrocities of apartheid.

The pertinent response to this state of affairs is not to lament the degeneration of education but to identify the fault-lines and to craft a way-forward for the future. There is no easy way out of this maze but giving up is not an option.

It can be argued that the wheels started coming off during the early stages when the new government in its zeal to discard everything with a whiff of apartheid, introduced completely new systems which had not undergone thorough scrutiny.

In this benighted experimentation with different systems of education, our children became guinea pigs, sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. It would be folly to argue that the quality of education during apartheid was high. What was not in doubt, however, was the relatively high standard of teaching.

During apartheid, teachers had to contend with suppressive laws, but never wavered in their commitment to impart their knowledge and skills to those entrusted upon them. They would teach under the most trying of circumstances and took pride in executing their duties, thus vindicating the contention that teaching is a noble profession.

The question needs to be asked: do we still have those type of teachers? A quick answer would be a resounding NO, though there exists a few exceptions. First, most teachers in our schools do not have a passion for learning and are thus wrongly placed in their chosen field. Worse still, they lack the technical proficiency and interpersonal competence so essential for classroom interaction.

The worst injustice to befall our education was the abdication of authority by the education department to the unions, especially the self-serving and anarchic South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). Union members regard themselves as untouchables who are above authority.

The failure by the department to rein in Sadtu and reclaim authority can only worsen the education crisis. Without teacher buy-in into the vision of the education department, all efforts at the implementation of ameliorative measures will be rendered futile to ensure that the ghost of apartheid haunts us ad infinitum.

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