SA’s challenges set education on a perilous path with pens-down movement

Over 800,000 matric candidates, mostly full-time pupils, took part in the NSC exams this year. Photographer: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Over 800,000 matric candidates, mostly full-time pupils, took part in the NSC exams this year. Photographer: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 11, 2023


It is that time of the year when 16- to 18-year-old students have just completed their matric exams. If you started school a little late, or circumstances held you back, by the time you write your matric exam you are 19 or older.

Our matric students have been subjected to a challenge comparable only to the one of June 16, but 47 years later and 30 years into our democracy.

While back then students fled the country, this time round they have to confront the demons.

Fleeing is not an option because there is no place to flee to. Many from other countries seek refuge here in South Africa.

In 2018, South African students completing matric in our democracy were subjected to an unprecedented, anti-education ruthlessness called load shedding, which confronted them as they were heading towards writing matric.

This ordeal was repeated in 2019. Then, the devastating global pandemic, Covid-19, struck in 2020, and learning from home became mandatory. Of course, only the children of the well-to-do could access the gadgets needed for home study.

From 2021 to date, the children of the poor are faced with the worst form of discrimination, where they are forced to fail to study because of heavy bouts of load shedding.

Since 1976, the youth of the country have never been faced by a system that undermines their future the way it has done in the past six years. The effects of this are devastating when it comes to developing a stock of skills for the nation, which anyway remains heavily rickety.

The utter silence and the burying of heads in the sand like ostriches is perturbing, yet unsurprising. When we completed primary school back in Lesotho, there was a little game girls would play. A good fight would be the mark of exit from primary school. This fight would be limited to two pairs at most and there would be a whole spectator crew to see who won. The weapons used by these lasses were very crude. A disused polish container punched with nails was a preferred weapon that would leave incurable marks on the face of the victim.

My elder cousin had just completed her primary school and had been looking forward to squaring up with her adversary. My father was a teacher at the school and would have none of that nonsense. My cousin could not understand and wanted to go and settle a score, over which the primary school would have no jurisdiction any longer.

I recall seeing her prepare the disused polish container, punching holes in it with a rusty nail. She was readying herself for a girl fight that was a few days away. My father got sight of this and became so furious that the prospect of the end-of-the-year girl fight melted like ice-cream on hot Kimberley tar.

These fights were certainly not common, though they threatened to happen from time to time. I do not remember any of the girls whom we grew up with having nasty scratches on their faces caused by a disused polish container with nails in it. Though often you would come across these disused mass weapons of face destruction. Parenting was tight and intolerant of errant conduct.

As the year ends, a sub-culture among matriculants of pens-down is taking root, on top of the darkness in which students are forced to study. The pens-down is a stimulated conduct of a lack of care for education.

Those who are in the seat of power today were the 18-year-old students that had to seek refuge elsewhere, and many continued to fulfil their thirst for education. Today, the presiding officers have unleashed the deadly angel of darkness on South Africa’s failing education system.

The pens-down movement is an indicator of our corrupt system that does not care about the future of the children. It is a subculture of nyaope and alcohol abuse. When the numbers of employed youth in 2008 is higher than the employed youth today, and the only thing they have to see besides the bad education system is darkness, what hope have we put in their path except nyaope and pens down.

This is the path they will tread. This path has long been coming. At the base of it are the schizophrenic fathers who claim conjugal and parenting rights from mothers who have long dismissed them as a parent. Fathering is easy, but parenting demands attention.

Sixty-two percent of fathers in South Africa claim to be married, against 38% of mothers. To understand who bewitched South Africa, it is that statistic that bewitched us – failure to parent.

Surprised by the results of the KwaZulu-Natal Citizen Satisfaction Survey Report on key concerns in the state of the state, I deliberately included a question to establish what the national picture looked like. It was a question about access to water, unemployment, the cost of electricity and the cost of transport – matters that keep South Africans awake at night. However, the answers to the survey completely took me aback.

Hygiene matters that sit lower than on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Education is another.

At a national level, in 2016, at the height of the #FeesMustFall movement, South Africans ranked education as a concern at number 15. Yet multidimensional poverty indices point to lack of education as the second-highest driver of poverty, after unemployment.

Seek to see what statistics conceal and not what they reveal. For there, concealed, you will find systemic and deep-rooted answers to what afflicts our society. Politicians will not fight for what is not our fight. Education is not a South African fight. For if it was, we should have joined the #FeesMustFallL movement, for then the university students understood what is keeping South Africa backwards.

The movement took the nail-punched disused polish cover and stopped seeking to fight for the useless, but set their eyes to liberating their country from ignorance.

Dr Pali Lehohla is director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.