Democratic-era education has not lived up to expectations - Businesslive

21 June 2021 - I vividly remember poring over the first reports of the events of June 16 1976 in the Rand Daily Mail the day after.

Michael Morris

I vividly remember poring over the first reports of the events of June 16 1976 in the Rand Daily Mail the day after.

The paper used to be delivered daily to the library at Kimberley Boys’ High School, where I was in my matric year, and it was in these placid confines that I absorbed what was probably the third key turning point in the fall of apartheid, after Sharpeville in 1960 and the first steps towards union recognition for blacks in 1973.

Forty-five years on, I recall sensing then that a momentous sequence of events had been set in train, and feeling in the flush of teenage moral certitude rather loftily vindicated in believing that apartheid’s days were numbered.

I was, of course, well into adulthood before that all-too-easily-imagined end arrived, nearly two decades later. And it was some years thereafter that I came across an insight I would almost certainly have overlooked in 1976 in historian William Beinart’s 2001 study, Twentieth Century South Africa.

It comes in his appraisal of the impact of the 1953 Bantu Education Act, widely regarded — as President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his Youth Day address last week — as providing “no education at all”.

But Beinart identified a remarkable contradiction: “A striking feature of the new system was the increase in overall education provision for Africans from about 800,000 school places in 1953 to 1.8-million in 1963; numbers expanded even more rapidly afterwards.”

Despite “gross underfunding, inadequate teacher training and [that] very many pupils did not get beyond the first four years of schooling, the proportion of students at secondary level gradually rose”. As a sum, “the consequences of Bantu education and more widespread literacy were to be far less predictable than either its planners or its opponents expected”.

If the contradiction of apartheid-era schooling was that the children of 1976 — though, to be sure, not all — were the ironic beneficiaries of an unintended consequence, the contradiction of post-1994 schooling is that the children of today are the ironic victims of political choices made in the name of their liberation.

For all the desire for knowledge — few people in the 21st century mistake its advantages (evident in the dramatic growth in university enrolment in SA between 1995 and 2018 of 88.7%) — the record of democratic-era schooling is pathetic, and insulting to the driven youngsters of four-and-a-half decades ago.

My senior colleague, Anthea Jeffery, has pointed out that “SA spends more than 6% of GDP on education — more than many other countries can afford — but gets little bang for its extensive buck”. Fewer than 40% of pupils who start school in grade one manage to pass matric, only 14% do so with marks good enough to go to university, and a mere 4% get 50% or more for matric maths.  

“The more than 60% of young people who leave school without even a matric are often functionally illiterate and innumerate. They then confront an economy made largely ‘uninvestable’ by persistent nationalisation threats — and further bedevilled by destructive load-shedding, deteriorating infrastructure, disintegrating local administration, and escalating corruption”, Jeffery writes.

The consequence is 51% joblessness among people between 15 and 34 — a sum of 6.8-million who make up nearly two thirds of SA’s 11.4-million jobless and destitute citizens. This lends terrible irony to Ramaphosa’s description of Bantu education last week as “another tool ... to keep black South Africans in servitude”.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.