In 2015 the World Economic Forum published a study ranking South African 140th out of 140 surveyed countries for mathematics and science education. This made for pretty damning reading, particularly as the nation had achieved the same feat the year before in the exact same study (top marks for consistency). The Department of Education were quick to discredit the results as “bizarre and lacking in credibility”.
While it is difficult to conceive how an organisation can compare multiple education systems with vastly different examinations and no real global standardisation, there is meticulous method to the study. And broadly speaking no smoke without fire.
South Africa still shows the scars of its Apartheid past, and this is no more evident than in its deeply partisan education system. If we were to generalise for a moment, the South African education system can be broadly split into three categories.
If you have even a basic knowledge of the social landscape of South Africa, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to know the vast majority of the 80% are non-white.
Generalisations aside, the statistics do not make for light reading. A recent study by the Mail&Guardian suggested that over 45% of learners drop out of school between Grade 9 and Grade 12, citing “weak learning” in the early years of schooling as the probable cause. The Mail&Guardian also researched the rising problem of teacher (yes, teacher) absenteeism.
Out of 93 schools surveyed 40 reported that teacher attendance was “often or always” a problem. In the same 93 schools, only 21 reported the same issue with learners. There is a long-standing endemic textbook shortage as government spending does not meet demand. And in some cases, particularly in rural “black” schools, teachers who have never had any formal teacher training, a lasting relic from the apartheid era.
On top of these “education” issues, there are also fundamental infrastructure and provision challenges. According to Equal Education, an independent NGO based in Khayelitsha (the largest Black African township in Cape Town).
There are essentially no minimum standards in South Africa to ensure schools are sufficiently equipped and safe for learners. Equal Education has been at the forefront of campaigning to introduce these norms and standards since 2011. Their activities include mass media infomercials, organising peaceful student protests (though in recent times some have turned ugly), and regularly taking the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, to court over unfulfilled policy promises – she has a habit of not turning up.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s pretty obvious that the education system is failing most of South Africa’s learners, most of the time. And very little is being done to solve the problem. When nearly half of kids drop out, when schools are not safe to sit in, and when the Minister of Education refuses to be held publicly accountable, it’s hard to not look at the situation with skeptical eyes.
Perhaps let’s be skeptical for a moment, just for opinion’s sake. The average salary of a South African Cabinet Minister like Angie Motshekga is R2.3million (£135,000), more or less the same as a Cabinet Minister in the UK. Seems fair enough, right?
Well, in South Africa minimum wage is R11 per hour (64 pence), in the UK minimum wage is ten times that figure at £6.70. Perhaps you now see where this is leading. Politicians in South Africa are paid disproportionately huge salaries compared with the “average” citizen.
Now if you were a government minister, earning a proportionally astronomical salary, would you think it were in your best interest to rock the boat? Or maintain the status quo? Particularly in an ANC government led by Jacob Zuma, a man known for dispensing of undesirables and rebels within the party.
What makes the South African education problem so hard to solve is that there simply isn’t one problem. Or even a set of related problems. The disparity between of the very top and very bottom schools is beyond vast, and the fact that each will hold its own unique challenges mean the only real makers of large-scale improvements can be the government.
Irrespective of how disruptive and dogged groups like Equal Education are. The only logical start is to instill and enforce a national minimum standard for education, infrastructure, and safety in schools. Sounds common sense. But often, however, logic and reality are far from intrinsically linked in South African politics.
And read the full articles referenced here:
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