Inequality lies at root of racial discontent – Saturday Star, 5 September 2015

Fixing education system, creating jobs will foster reconciliation.

By Mienke Mari Steytler, Saturday Star, 5 September 2015

In the past few months, South Africa has been plagued by incidents such as the white student who urinated on the head of a black security guard, the black man who was beaten up for dancing with a white woman, and the white schoolboys who assaulted their black classmate with a broom and a toothbrush. And, this week, student movements are calling for transformation on university campuses, taking to the streets, and to the headlines. Why is this happening? And, why now? 

We can talk about racial reconciliation. We can raise our voices and pump our fists. And, some of us can withdraw into racial enclaves.

None of this will have long-term impact – and bring real positive change – if we do not face the underlying causes of our racist outbursts. And, yes, these outbursts are ours. Ours as a nation, as much as many of us would like to distance ourselves from such vile behaviour.

It is happening now because our economy is growing extremely slowly, our education system is failing the majority of students, youth unemployment is high, and empowerment policies are being kept in place, benefiting a few but not the majority. The result is severe economic inequality, causing immense tension, and South Africans are sick of it.

The education system is failing the majority of young South Africans, especially young, black, South Africans who are reliant on inadequate public schools in areas of high deprivation.

About 1.2 million children are enrolled in Grade 1 in a given year. However, after Grade 11, enrolment drops dramatically to approximately 800 000, and by the time these learners reach Grade 12, enrolment has dropped to around 600 000. That’s a drop-out of more than half a million young people... Some of the drop-outs are due to learners re-doing grades, teenage pregnancies, supporting families, and finances, but does that mean we should forget about those learners?

This is of grave concern to the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and we feel strongly that the education system needs immediate reform. The IRR believes the establishment of independent schools must be encouraged to give communities, parents and learners more choice, and better quality.

Data from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) shows that between 2000 and 2012, the number of independent schools in South Africa rose by 62 percent, with the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga leading the charge at 403 percent, 138 percent and 82 percent. Over the same period, the number of public schools countrywide decreased by 9.5 percent. South Africans are doing it for themselves.

“Independent school” does not mean paying an ostentatious amount to have a child educated, it means placing the education of children in the hands of communities by allowing local people to elect principals, for grandmothers to sit on school governing bodies, and for schools to be run like businesses, increasing accountability of principals, teachers and governing bodies. It means giving poor learners a chance at a decent education, and furthering their potential to one day have a job.

Employing unskilled young people, who have been failed by the education system, is no mean feat. Only about eight percent of the learners who started school at age 7 will pass matric mathematics at over 40%. Enrolment at university has increased by 252% since 1995, and enrolment of young, black, South Africans by 132%. Enrolment of young, white, South Africans has declined by 19.5%. The increase in enrolment is worth celebrating but not if 51% of these same young people will not graduate.

Sixty-five percent of people in the 15-24 age group are not in education, employment or training.

In sum, a failing education system resulting in youth unemployment is undeniably South Africa’s greatest challenge.

Furthermore, the sectors where unskilled young people could be employed have seen drops in their contributions to GDP, making job creation in these sectors difficult.
Agriculture has declined from contributing 16.6% of GDP in 1951 to 2.4% in 2013; mining by 12.1% to 9.2% of GDP; and manufacturing from 18.1% to 11.6%. The greatest growth has been in the financial sector, from 9.3% to 21.5%.

With so few high school students passing maths with a good grade, and so many university students never graduating, the skills mismatch is huge. Job creation in other sectors is critically needed.

The decline in agriculture, mining and manufacturing is due to a number of factors. One is stringent labour regulation. The IRR calls for less severe regulation of the labour market, so unskilled young people can access jobs and gain skills more easily in the private sector.

BEE, with job creation in the public sector, has helped a small number of people to reach the middle class. But most black South Africans are struggling to make ends meet.
The IRR is developing an alternative policy – Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED). EED purports that income, and not race, is the strongest indicator of disadvantage.  

For example, where a young, state school-educated, black male from the rural Eastern Cape competes for a job with a young, privately educated, black male from Gauteng, the first young man potentially misses out. With EED he will have a fighting chance.

The IRR guarantees that with a flourishing economy, an education system that serves the majority of pupils, a labour market that is accessible to unskilled young people, and empowerment policies that truly empower all, South Africa will see less racism and more reconciliation. 

Mienke Mari Steytler is head of media and public affairs at the IRR. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.