Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician General and the former Head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician General and the former Head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

How Census lessons could help with training of new assistants to teachers

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 25, 2020

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Although not quite comparable, the recruitment of people who should run a census and that of assistants to teachers in an environment of high levels of unemployment and agitation requires serious care.

The recruitment of more than 200 000 assistants to teachers by the December 1 leaves my bald head with straightened hair.

In 1996 we were confronted with a difficult financial situation and yet a national census of the population was so crucial to run.

Berni Fanaroff, the then adviser to Jay Naidoo in the Reconstruction and Development Programme Office said they could only come up with R 360 million and the bill for the census was at R 590m.

I recall Mark Orkin and I asking him to decide which province we should not count, then perhaps we could make do with the R360m.

This was not the only headache though.

The other was getting quality workforce to run a census by advertising for a 100 000 people knowing fully that we were going to be oversubscribed by ten to one for the jobs we had for the census.

So the forward logistics of selection, training for two weeks, then selection over two days, deployment for 21 days, then payment at the end of enumeration and decommissioning as we put in gear reverse logistics gave us sleepless nights.

In previous years, the census was a task undertaken by the noble profession – the teachers.

But the South Africa of the 70s did not have as many people with matric and the quantum of the unemployed as in 1996.

It all made sense to deploy matriculants.

Many a member of the public were aghast with the decision and would have preferred teachers given the importance of a census.

I shared the same sentiment, but even if I would have liked, the levels of unemployment of adequately trained people to undertake the task weighed in heavily and off we went to recruit matriculants.

Notwithstanding the challenges and the horror stories of payments of enumerators, distributed data processing centres challenges and endless attempts of integrating the datasets and finally the large difference between the preliminary and final results of the census, the results were finally well received. Madiba honoured us by launching the census results.

I would hate to be in the shoes of Minister Angie Motshega of Basic Education.

She has done well in stabilising the workforce and the toxic strikes have abated and she deserves a high five for wrestling with that tiger.

But no sooner had she settled albeit with less satisfactory education outputs, Covid-19 arrived. This has a devastating effect on the fragile education system and on long-term development of human resources.

Covid-19 like the census has opened a possibility for participation by young people in the education sector as assistants to teachers.

My take, however, would be different.

Unlike a census, which historically needed you to train enumerators for say two to three weeks, rebuilding education in the wake of the devastation caused by prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd requires a much more serious and thorough going thought and strategy.

Verwoerd tried to dis-empower black people by destroying their education,

The recruitment of staff should not only address Covid legacy but the deep and destructive legacy of apartheid.

Rather than have assistant to teachers recruited and deployed immediately, I would use the time to provide training to these 200 000 would be recruits for a year or two.

Upon completion I would focus them at grades one to four.

The following year I would bring another cohort of 200 000 for training and workout an education renewal system. I would simultaneously take a strategy that would deploy the 50 year-plus old teachers into community work to mobilise us as focal points and focus us on the ills of our society.

The rapid recruitment and deployment of the youth without meticulous training will create new consternations that are poised to further damage our rickety education system.

Yet if we take a moment and ask what kind of teacher we wish for, this is the time to do so. Then with urgency but of thinking heads, we can recruit, select, train these recruits for a year or two using half the stipend for their uptake and then deploy them to the lower grades.

The education problem of our children, urgent as it is like a census of 1996 should not present the case for solving the problem of unemployed graduate or matriculants – different horses for course strategy should be deployed there. T

he question is rather how do we deliver the best education for the yet to be born. We owe future generations this oath on education and such commands a totally different thinking.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician General and the former Head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @palilj01

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