The root of all the rot

William Saunderson-Meyer on the catastrophic failure of basic education in SA


Virtually every suppurating sore on the South African body politic — be it unemployment, violence, social disintegration, economic failure, or whatever — can be traced to a single cause. It’s the failure of basic education.

This week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a working paper, Struggling to Make the Grade: A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Weak Outcomes of South Africa's Education System. It was authored by their senior representative in SA, Montfort Mlachila and a consultant, a Wits University PhD candidate, Tlhalefong Moeletsi. 

The report, for all its diplomatically worded civility, is a disturbing assessment from an influential international institution, assessing the key factor in SA's decline. It should give cause for pause, yet met with widespread indifference. 

None of the political parties, including the Democratic Alliance, which styles itself as a government-in-waiting, responded. The entity that should be most concerned, the Department of Basic Education, dismissed the IMF paper with a contemptuously glib response.

To paraphrase the researchers: SA spends more on education than most countries yet performs exceptionally poorly in comparison; our teachers in state schools are comparatively well paid but mostly are absent, lazy, incompetent, unaccountable to anyone, and often know less than those they are supposed to teach; and that unless we tend the roots of learning, nothing higher up the educational food chain is ever going to be palatable.

The IMF pulls together some distressing figures: 20% of state teachers don’t appear for work on Mondays and Fridays, and a third are missing at month-end; and in township and rural schools, there are an average of 3.5 hours of teaching a day, while in former white schools it’s 6.5 hours. On the international tests that the IMF paper cites, SA “learners” performed at the very bottom, or second last, despite being measured against kids who were at least a year younger.

Basic Education’s spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga rejected the IMF paper out of hand and lauded the commitment of state teachers. He cited as proof of their dedication once seeing pupils attending a Free State school on a Saturday, for free extra lessons. Unfortunately, he did not answer my phone calls, so I could not elicit a more substantive rebuttal.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is admirably less coy and deluded than her spokesperson about the state of our education system. She told a parliamentary briefing a few years back that testing showed that 80% of schools were dysfunctional. But, Mhlanga told Africa Check, the department no longer uses this categorisation because “it is destructive and demoralising” to the schools.

There are some recurring numbers — the Mark of the Satanic Beast, at least in SA education, is not 666. It’s 80. 

Some 80% of state schools are dysfunctional. Some 80% of learners, all poorer kids, attend dysfunctional state schools. Some 80% of teachers are unionised. More than 80% of unionised teachers belong to the SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU).

And this is where the lacuna is in the IMF report. It doesn’t take on SADTU, the Satanic Beast itself. Nowhere do the researchers critically interrogate the role that SADTU plays in the basic education debacle.

It’s a puzzling omission. The history of the issue speaks for itself.

In 2015 Motshekga appointed a ministerial task team, comprising an array of respected educationalists and headed by Professor John Volmink, into the widespread selling by SADTU of teaching appointments for cash.

The findings were political dynamite. The Volmink task-team concluded that SADTU had a “stranglehold” over six of the nine provinces — the exceptions being the Western and Northern Cape and the Free State — exercising “de facto control” over their education departments. The entire union, not just a few rogue elements, was found to be involved. 

The unions, Motshekga said, “appear to control government for selfish reasons which don't benefit learners or the country”. The “dominant influence” of the unions was made possible by the “feeble and dilatory condition” of existing managerial and administrative processes. 

“There is no doubt that this has permitted unions to move into areas in which they have no business. Now, through the inexorable creeping of nepotism, these sectors of government are as subject to undue influence as every other sector.”

She promised that the “rot that has infiltrated education” would be brought under control. “This blatant exploitation and corruption will not be tolerated.”

Hands up, those of you in the class, who think that in the intervening three years anything substantive has been done by the African National Congress government against its union ally, SADTU? Yup, you’re right. Pretty much bugger all.

Although there were supposedly going to be SA Council of Education investigations, and provincial education department investigations, and SA Police Service investigations into 84 individuals identified in the Volmink report, no one has been fired, or disbarred, or jailed. Or is ever likely to be.

Nor have any of the policy changes that Motshekga promised, been introduced. Or are ever likely to be, by the ANC.

In fact, as Cyril Ramaphosa eloquently put it, speaking at a SADTU congress a couple of years ago, “SADTU has been a great boon, rather than a burden, to our education system.” 

He praised the union for “transforming” education and added: “Some people don’t like strong unions, but the ANC does.” So, no change coming with Cyril’s “new dawn”, then.

Since the DA is apparently not much interested in the problems highlighted by the IMF, I spoke to Gavin Davis, the former DA shadow Basic Education minister, who has left politics for the business world. He bemoans the failure of the political establishment, to deal with what he describes as “the biggest crisis in SA, the failure of basic education, which is what ultimately will destroy this country”. 

“The truth is, “Bantu education”, that terrible creation of apartheid, is still with us. Yet there is no sustained outrage.

“The urban elites, including those prominent in the ANC, send their children to former model-C and private schools. The rural and township poor lack the power, the resources and the connections to address the problem. They have no one to speak for them,” says Davis.

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