I was in my home province, KwaZulu Natal, a few weeks ago. Spending a few days in my hometown of Stanger, also known as KwaDukuza, was pleasant as always.
While there, I visited my high school teachers. Meeting them was a wonderful, humbling experience. It reminded me of my beginnings.
The first teacher I met taught me maths in grade 12. He is now principal in one of the primary schools in the region. A remarkable man who contributed time and resources in my growth when I was a young star. I am who I am today because of him; and other teachers who supported me in my pursuit of education. If these teachers had not shown up in my life, I may have been telling a different story today.
The conversation with my maths teacher, in his office, over coffee and tea, was intellectual. It focused on the matters of South Africa’s public education. Though I thought it was important to have the dialogue, I found the content unpleasant; because it was more about the ills of the country’s public education system. I listened more than I spoke. I have not taught in South Africa’s public education system since 1984, my maths teacher has.
His thought is that South Africa's public education system is a disaster. That the education officials and administrators do not take education seriously. He also pointed to the teachers union the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) as one of the culprits in the weakening of education. The union puts members’ interest first, not children’s education, he said.
Administrators can be a joke. During our discussion, he recalled one regional education director who assigned a mathematics literacy teacher to teach English in one of the schools in Stanger. How do you take a teacher qualified to teach mathematics literacy, and assign him to English? Such irresponsible decisions are amongst the things that harm South Africa's public education and disadvantage children.
And one of the saddest things is that in some schools the highlight of the day for teachers is the nutritional programme, not test scores. There is not much focus on school work to improve the learners’ test results. Teachers come and hang around for the meal of the day, and then go home, my maths teacher said.
The next day I visited my high school, and met my technology and accounting teachers. My technology teacher told me that the learners are not passionate about education. He said that my generation had a positive attitude toward education, in contrast to today's learners in the school. My maths teacher had echoed the same thing the day before. Learners are not driven to pursue knowledge.
You see the fact that learners are not motivated to work harder in their studies is concerning. Children’s disillusionment with education is a reminder that some of the fundamental things in South Africa's education cannot be fixed by government policy. All the government can do is provide access to educational resources; motivation is something they cannot provide. It is parents who have to motivate their children to learn.
I was asked to address two grade 12 classes. In my motivational address, I told the learners that how their future will turn out is in their hands. It does not matter the socioeconomic status of the families they come from; they can do it. They have the brains and the teachers to support them.
I come from a family where I was the first person to study beyond matric and earn South Africa’s two university qualifications. My parents never had that privilege. Working harder and seeking support from my teachers helped me.
Now let me briefly explain what can be done to make South Africa’s public education better.
In a nutshell, it is two-fold. Government's education policy needs to be reformed, and private citizens in townships and rural areas need to change their behaviour toward education.
Policy changes must include a strong, competitive curriculum; with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, science and technology. Politics need to change too. The ANC government should abandon the alliance with teachers’ unions.
Labour union SADTU, has been a blockade to genuine education reform, as my maths teacher astutely argued. As part of reform, low-fee independent schools will also need to be encouraged by the government.
The biggest responsibility lies with private citizens. They must hold the education officials accountable. And parents have a critical role to play in their children’s education. Even if they are not educated or well-off, they can encourage their children to be disciplined, and to work harder.
Because if children are not motivated to learn, no government policy can improve their test scores. They need good test scores to become most successful professionals or businesspeople.
South Africa's education will only be improved by the country's private citizens. They must view education as a very important mechanism in improving their economic development. If they slack off, their children's future will remain bleak.
Phumlani M. Majozi is a senior fellow at African Liberty. His website is phumlanimajozi.com. Follow him on Twitter: @PhumlaniMMajozi