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Sham empowerment, fronting and broad-based black economic empowerment evasion undermine the gains made by our struggle and have to be fought tooth and nail.
Empowerment companies take up this fight every day, but sometimes the enemy is not backsliding big business or tenderpreneurs.
Sometimes the enemy is the system – to be specific, our education system. Regrettably, creating the appearance of progress without building individual capacity is becoming standard practice in our education system.
But empowerment – including educational empowerment – is not a numbers game. It is a strategic effort to foster the economic contribution of the black majority by equipping it with appropriate knowledge and skills.
Contrast this vision with the reality in our schooling system.
On the surface, the percentages look good and seem to offer hope for the future.
The last matric results from the Department of Basic Education reflected a significant “improvement” as the pass rate topped 70 percent.
Dig deeper and grave doubts arise. For a pass, an exam candidate needs to score just 40 percent in their home language, scrape 40 percent in two further subjects, and get 30 percent in two more.
Those of us who grew up thinking 50 percent was a pass (a poor one) are clearly out of date.
Yet, if you use the outdated 50 percent yardstick, only 18.5 percent passed a critical subject such as maths (rather than the official 46.3 percent).
Other numbers are also worrying.
About 1 035 192 pupils entered Grade 1 in 2000, but only 492 090 wrote their matric papers last year – an attrition rate of 52.1 percent.
Education is the most fundamental form of empowerment, but how broad-based can the process be when more than half the potential beneficiaries fall by the wayside?
Decades before any formal empowerment structures, disenfranchised South Africans realised education was one way to break the cycle of poverty.
Since then, the right of access to education has been won. The right to quality schooling is still being contested. That contest has been lost by the 52 percent who don’t even make it to matric. The contest continues for those who pass matric, but risk failure at university. Our university graduation rate of 15 percent is one of the lowest in the world.
Yet SA has one of the world’s highest rates of public investment in education.
The government spends more on education than on anything else (about 7 percent of GDP and 20 percent of state expenditure).
Despite the taxpayer’s billions, drop-out rates at some universities approach 35 percent. Many exit the system in their first year.
Most are the children of the poor.
The results of sham education are plain.
Most of those aged between 15 and 24 and who have matric are unemployed, according to an ANC national executive committee lekgotla report.
They don’t even make it into the economy. For them, economic empowerment is a bad joke.
Some of us with roles in empowerment companies have been trying to fix the problem from the wrong end – though this effort must still be made.
We sit on company boards in the throes of transformation and push for sustained investment in education and training.
We lobby for adult basic education training, skills transfer and management development.
Transformation champions support bursary initiatives and lobby for cash to be donated to community-based education projects from the corporate social investment budget.
In many respects, this is a belated “fix”. To put it bluntly, corporate level empowerment can’t put in what our schooling system leaves out.
The challenge has to be addressed when the youth come into the education system.
Our children are bright enough. But they’ve not been schooled enough.
Properly qualified teachers must set appropriate standards early. We should stop playing games with pass mark percentages and start inculcating the lessons that hard work and application are essential.
Often it is simply not possible to instill this culture at home. Parents may be semi-literate.
It is easy for a teenage son or daughter to trick mum and dad into thinking no homework has been set and there is no need for home-based study.
Mum and dad know no better because they were even more severely disadvantaged at school than the present generation.
Parents should be involved in their children’s education – but, sadly, their capacity to do so effectively has been impaired by past inequities.
Dedicated teachers, therefore, have an even greater responsibility to set the right standards.
As things stand right now, the system cheats our youth by giving them an illusion of progress.
I quote Thomas Jefferson, , who said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”
If we wish to retain our freedom and make good on empowerment, we must give our youth a real education, not a sham one. To do anything less sets them up to fail.
* Bomela is CEO of the Mineworkers’ Investment Company, an empowerment player committed to education, notably through its partner organisation, the JB Marks bursary fund