THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - The most significant current affairs in South Africa as we usher in 2018 are notably the release of the class of 2017 matric results and the sad passing on of Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile.

Perhaps this presents a deserving moment to pause. To help us through this, discussing a book by Dr Bethuel Setai titled A circle is closed: A lifetime in exile forms the appropriate platform.

Setai was one of the Mangaung 12 referred to as Mandela’s disciples who left the country in 1960 to advance the cause of the struggle.

The educational theme of the book is contagious and, however, contrasts sadly with the disappointing matric results that have been numbing our collective psyche year in and year out.

As a nation we should address this portended catastrophe. However, it is the right thing to congratulate those who have succeeded as that points to what can be possible. Therein lies our national hope. The passing on of Kgositsile, an intellectual giant whose iconic grey matter and infectious smile dwarfed his physique, defied his modesty and oft stood at odds with his self-deprecating humour, remains a profound loss to the nation. In the afterword chapter of the said book, the late Dr Bethuel Pitori Setai summarises the essence of education, which is a theme running relentlessly throughout his book.

He asserts that the major tenets of and preconditions for education as development and freedom are patience, discipline and mentoring. The main subjects, as evidence from Japan for success suggests, are the foundational skills in mathematics, art and history. Setai concludes that society must ensure each child is capacitated to achieve competence in each of these - that is, these subjects must be compulsory.

He argues that patience, discipline and mentoring as determinants of successful education create profound conditions for accountability. However, by all counts as adjudged by the public protector, the judiciary, the auditor-general and by our own admission as a nation, accountability has increasingly become an attribute the deficit of which is conspicuously glaring by its absence.

In addition to A Circle is closed, reading The Making of Poverty in South Africa is useful to penetrate the inner thinking of Setai. This is relevant as we attempt to secure our own understanding and interpretation of the fleece of our edifice. The edifice manifests itself predominantly in three ways, first it is in our education system, which has been fossilised in intergenerational comatose, second it is in our own spirited and unashamed effort to keep our economy on crutches, and last it is in our brute stubbornness of sticking our elbows in our ears in order to keep out wisdom and counsel of those alive, including those who joined the angels such as Ahmed Kathrada, Pitori Setai, and lately Keorapetse Kgositsile.

Kgositsile lamented the unacceptable situation in an interview when reflecting on the current state of affairs in South Africa. This he did shortly before his passing. He bluntly refers to this as a mess. Turning to Setai’s book, let me admit that by referring to only three anecdotes, I am doing a serious injustice on this luminous work.

The three anecdotes are on education, planning and Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile. The book was launched at the DBSA on November 29 by the Tambo Foundation and the Setai family. Kgositsile’s presence was conspicuous as he greeted and mingled with a knowing twinkle in his eye and a broad smile on his face.


On page 28 of the book Setai says the following about enrolment at Bantu High School where he attended from 1955.

“Bantu High School was big and crowded. Form One was split into five classes of fifty students each. Form Two had three classes of forty each. Form Three had two classes of twenty five students each. Forms Four and Five was one class of ten students each. This is indicative of the small numbers who made it to the end,” he lamentably concludes.

So 60 years ago only 5percent of those who entered high school made it to university from Bantu High School.

Sixty years later, Census 2011, Community Survey 2016 and administrative records of the department of education show that in the general population out of the 1million students that start Form One, 60percent will write matric and only 10percent of these who started make it to university in our education.

There is basically no difference in the performance of the system from the times of Pitori. This proves that the system is seriously intergenerational comatose.

In 60 years the needle moved from 5percent to 10percent - and this is so among black and coloured people, while among Indians and white people the needle is upwards of 70percent. If you doubted, check the performance of IEB - they are at 88percent university entry. This is the sad story that the time plots on progression ratios tell us.

A demographic dividend is impossible for blacks and coloureds who are 90percent in this country and simply put at current performance the youth are discarded to the dustbin of history.

Whilst the question of where the money will come from for funding education is very important, in the context of a catastrophe happening, however, it is totally inappropriate. The strategic question is this - can South Africa afford an intergenerational education comatose?

The answer to this is not one equal to an answer to a question of where the money will come from.

The answer is a wake-up call to put the National Development Plan (NDP) on centre stage and the attendant planning systems that will implement it.

We need to ask tough questions on nuclear energy, SAA rescue, Eskom rescue, more RDP houses versus education. This is what should be discussed by the Integrated Development Plans - in short, priorities discussed by real people at all levels.

The Overton window of political possibilities is here and the moment for education to occupy that space has arrived.

The question of money is completely irrelevant and whilst many see the announcement by the country’s president as crisis ridden, I beg to differ with their conclusions, because this is a myopic view.

The fact is this crisis has long been coming - it is only becoming catastrophic. It is a crisis that our poor planning system courted over the last two decades and added to the centuries and decades of colonial and apartheid neglect respectively.

Our frown on macro organisation of the state underpinned by scenarios - (Shosholoza, Dudisanang and Skedonk) introduced in 2003 by the President Thabo Mbeki administration but dumped under President Jacob Zuma’s administration was unhelpful.

These initiatives were forerunners to the NDP, which was given intent and life under Zuma’s administration. But the NDP also received our collective inaction, thereby precipitating and yielding this crisis.

The crisis is now unavoidable and no amount of bureaucratic questions will remove it. It is, however, a good crisis that lays bare the fundamental weaknesses of perennial and delusional tinkering and tip-toeing around significant national issues which the national statistics office as part of an accountability framework raised, and includes findings by the public protector and the judiciary.

Among these are our being ensnared in a culture of the self-first, state capture and all sorts of undesirable levels of failure to account.

We never had the courage as a nation to confront these.

Instead we reflected and introspected endlessly and this, if sustained, will build hopefully to our national amnesia that will bury our nightmares.

Now the glare of the mirror from frequent visits for reflection has not only blinded our vision, but the multiple mirrors we looked into hoping for a different view, have produced infinite images that have made us lose where and who the real we are.

And like in a Bruce Lee karate fight in a hall of mirrors our images are infinite. In the end, like drunkards in a beerhall, some of us demand the meal, whilst others ask where the meal will come from?

No one pauses among us to ask the serious and coherent question about who stole the meal and what remedy are we implementing to recover it as well as expand it? Setai’s books raise these issues sharply and he is asking for a plan.

The second anecdote is a corollary to the first and is on planning. It is on page 122.

Setai on his way back from exile retraced his route of departure through several African countries, and this included Zambia, where he then worked. He visited parts of the country and saw a project gone bad. Setai writes about a steel plant inaugurated by the then Yugoslavian President Marshal Tito on his visit to Zambia.

The project was named TiKa. The “Ti” stood for Tito and “Ka” stood for Kaunda. Beautiful houses with expensive Yugoslav furniture remained well maintained and clean, but stood empty.

“The project was apparently conceived without a feasibility study and as it progressed it became clear that coal was needed and would have to be trucked in from very, very far away, and so the project ground to a standstill. I always wondered what happened to the project in the end,” Setai exclaimed.

There are many TiKas in South Africa, such as RDP houses built far from work, schools without proper sanitation fatally punishing young Komape from Chaneng, nuclear energy debates that are detail shy on benefits, finance, economics and popular support except a rehearsed rhetoric of “at a pace that is affordable”.

Fluffy talk

This is fluffy talk and cannot stand economic scrutiny and project implementation. It is a typical TiKa equivalent.

Setai must prospectively be wondering what will happen to nuclear energy and its ilk.

Contrast this against our intergenerational education comatose.

The third anecdote on page 96 is one where Setai in 1966 was accompanied by Kgositsile to meet Robert Kennedy the then US attorney-general. Here he argued that the US did not understand and appreciate the South African struggle and sought to enlighten the attorney-general.

This was shortly before the attorney-general would visit South Africa. The two are now with the angels and Setai may also ask Willie - as Kgositsile was fondly known - why in October 1962 on their flight from Tanzania to the US Willie with Jerry Seshibe whilst in London on transit they munched food and downed Ballantine and never advised Pitori that he could eat as all that was on the house.

Setai writes: “I remember barely eating on the entire flight, because I thought it would cost money and I did not want to waste any. In London we stopped over and I again ate nothing, because I didn’t know that food was included in the airfare. Willie and Jerry went to the dining room and left me waiting in the departure lounge.”

I had the honour of addressing the mourners at the funeral of Dr Setai on behalf of the alumni of the National University of Lesotho, where he taught us. I was also honoured to be a discussant at the launch of this book on November 9, hosted by the Tambo Foundation and the Setai family.

Addressing the intergenerational education comatose in South Africa should be the beginning of true liberation and the president’s announcement on this matter is significant.

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

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