Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa. File Image: IOL
JOHANNESBURG - Professor Peter Raper and Dr Lucie Möller of the Human Sciences Research Council specialise in toponymy, which is defined as the etymological study of geographic or place names. Names are an embodiment of history and that makes the study of their origin very revealing.

In South Africa many of the names reflect the history of struggle and many in those of its underdeveloped regions, especially shanty towns, are named after the heroes and heroines of the Struggle post-1994 - revealing as it were, the hope of the nation for the future.

Those associated with apartheid also reveal hope - but their etymology is replete of palliatives aimed at propitiation of the mind. Names like Thabong, Boikhutsong, Boipatong, Thembisa, Khayelisha and so on are propitious.

Where propitiation could not be appropriated, a concoction such as Soweto or Soshanguve was created to reflect either location specificities embedding power relations or ethnic composition of such geographies.

South Western Townships - in relation to a metropole Johannesburg. So (So-We-To), Soweto could not exist in name in its own right, it had to be related to Johannesburg - a clear and definite power relation arrangement.

As regards ethnicity Sotho, Shangaan, Nguni and Venda for (So-Sha-Ngu-Ve) Soshanguve was concocted. As a student and practitioner of demography taking an interest in place names is unavoidable because they are communication tools summarising the struggles and living conditions of a people.

In 1989 the HSRC, the University of Pretoria, the Canadian place names authority and a Jewish university hosted a workshop at the University of Pretoria on place names.

Later, in 1990, I was in Happy Valley in Swaziland, where the University of Swaziland hosted a Pan African Languages workshop. Many were quite surprised that I took an interest in this subject and I was the only statistician in attendance. As I presented my paper on correlates and determinants of naming, many a linguists' eye was opened.

But what intrigued me and left an indelible impression in my mind was a paper on the Venda language. The paper argued that the Venda language manifests itself across most, if not all, of the Bantu languages, making it possible for the Venda people to adapt easily to speaking and understanding different languages.

A census is a time machine and provides a historical performance that is time-series rich. In this regard, following on this narrative of languages and our maligned education system, there are nuggets that come to the surface to answer the question or prospects for a demographic dividend for South Africa.

In the previous columns I provided a four-race analysis of performance for those who completed Grade 12 and went on to complete a degree.

We saw how whites outclass blacks and coloureds by a considerable margin and how Indians caught up significantly after the 1953 landmark decision by Dr Verwoerd, where he asked the following question in Parliament: “What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?” Obviously, we know the rest was history and we are left with this legacy that we have to answer.


In this column, I present an analysis of progression ratios by language group. The column thus sheds light on the possibility of questions that should be asked and answered so as to establish pathways out of this melancholic echo of our failing education system and our potentially failed youth by our generation as leaders.

Two graphs show that those whose language at home is English have sustained improving progression ratios. That is, successive cohorts of those who ultimately go to university perform increasingly better than previous cohorts.

That is a strong sign of development and consolidation of a demographic dividend. In this group we are most likely to have - as the previous analysis showed - whites and Indians.

The poor performance among the Afrikaans-speakers is a result of the effects of coloureds, whose performance, as I showed previously, was appalling. Blacks, in similar ways as coloureds, perform badly. But something is beginning to separate blacks once we analyse the data by language group.

The Venda speakers, while showing regressive tendencies like all blacks, have a progression ratio of success that is twice that of the Zulu and much better than the worst performers, namely the Swati and Ndebele.

The role of place names reflected palliatives to the troubled nerves of the natives during apartheid. However, the revolutionary names reflecting heightened hope in post-apartheid South Africa are not about remedy as they are not matched by heightened educational performance.

Instead, we are confronted by another set of palliatives of drug abuse among our youth - a six-million people wasted, a potential demographic dividend lost - lost with each successive cohort. A degenerating South Africa of adults intoxicated by political rhetoric rather than being inspired and willed by facts.

As the ANC convenes its 54th elective congress at Nasrec to map out the future, the national question perhaps highest on our minds should be - is the much-flaunted unity about the party or is it about resolving the scourge of the state of our education.

History will judge us harshly if we knowingly continue to fail our youth.

This, the 54th conference, marks a crucial watershed.

Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.