Not in charge: Although Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga cant be held responsible for all of SAs educational woes, she has been incompetent in managing her portfolio, says the writer. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

A professor once asked a junior colleague who had just joined his faculty of education how the teaching was coming along. He answered: “Oh, sir, the teaching is coming along fine, it’s just the learning that’s a problem.” His statement outlines the difficulties educationists seem to encounter in situations where students are not receptive.

In the SA context, however, both teaching and learning are under serious threat. In a recent report from the SA Institute of Race Relations, it was noted that thousands of teachers in state schools bunk classes and many do not understand their subjects, or how to teach them.

However, the learning process is a complicated sum of many facets that involves teachers, pupils, parents, educational authorities, government agencies, infrastructure, finances, leadership and so forth.

More than any other indicator of social anomie is the failure of a nation to address the educational needs of its people. “Iqra (Read),” says the Holy Qur’an. The Hindus mythologise the virtue of education by bestowing the important portfolio into the lap of Saraswathi Devi, the goddess of learning.

Every revered religion talks about “the book”. And we in SA are throwing away our books and spurning our accumulated heritage where education is a divine injunction to learn from the cradle to the grave. What a sacrilegious act!

It is reported that we only have 252 operational school libraries, so how can we even begin to inculcate a reading culture in our schools if we do not have the basics? In addition we put a heavy tax on books, keeping them beyond the reach of those who need them the most.

We have been told how prisoners on Robben Island longed for written material as much as food itself. In Ashwin Desai’s book Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island he tells the story of how political prisoners read voraciously to fire their spirits with knowledge. Nelson Mandela devoured Tolstoy’s War and Peace in three days, whereas the average reader would normally take months to finish the work.

But our current leadership seems to be blasé about education. It has been reported that at the recent ANC policy conference, the national education crisis was not even listed on the agenda.

It is ironic that our president has just been awarded an honorary professorship of international studies by Peking University in China, while his country’s educational system is in the doldrums.

Calls to replace our minister of basic education with a more competent alternative have been largely ignored. But irritating as she may be, Angie Motshekga cannot be held responsible for all of our educational woes. What she does reveal, however, is her incompetency in managing her portfolio. When she says she cannot be held responsible for the loss of textbooks, because it was not her job to deliver them, she reveals her lack of understanding of what management and leadership is about.

I am assisting a major corporation in its endeavours to prop up an Umlazi school with science labs and other equipment. In motivating the teachers and the pupils, I have come across some serious problems that can be divided into what can be managed and what is beyond the scope of the teacher. The latter refers to endemic poverty, child-headed households, HIV/ Aids, the rising rate of childhood pregnancies and other social conditions.

Then there are instances that teachers pander to the pupils by manipulating their marks to their satisfaction. And the issue of male teachers abusing their female wards, and weak or non-existent parental control.

But there is a spark of hope here and there. One teacher showed me the grateful SMS that she received from a former pupil who had recently graduated as an actuary. She said the child used to go without food for days, but he persisted. He had written to thank her for her love and support as a teacher.

Beyond these challenges there are macro issues that point to poor leadership at the highest level.

We may recall that the ANC made many blunders in education over the years, starting with the closure of all our training colleges and encouraging a mass exodus of some of our best teachers into retirement.

Change for change’s sake had to happen. Accordingly, in an attempt to redress the past, new patterns of institutionalised racism replaced old patterns of institutionalised racism as practised during apartheid. In the process our children suffered, as we offered a “neo-township” education by a benevolent leadership.

Every year the profession faces a shortage of about 6 000 teachers because we don’t have the training institutions to accommodate new recruits to replace retiring or resigning teachers.

Over 10 years we have closed down 2 338 schools in various parts of the country.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu warns us that we mismanage education at our own peril.

We need to bring in our retired teachers and consultants to assist with educational and disciplinary techniques; we need to include teachers from all racial and cultural backgrounds to add richness to the tapestry of learning.

We need a joint partnership between the government, community and educationists. Together we can save the situation.