What do you think the countries with the worst education in the world look like? They probably have terrible infrastructure where most people don’t live in bricks and mortar houses, don’t have access to clean water, or don’t have a reliable source of light and energy. They are likely to be places with poor communication mediums, little public transport, dysfunctional institutions, and little to no research.

Apparently, this is not true as, while it does not fit the profile above, South Africa is ranked by the World Economic Forum as having the third worst education system in the world behind Yemen and Libya. In terms of the quality of maths and science education, it is ranked last.

Admittedly, the study only includes 148 of about 195 countries, but this judgement still comes as a shock. It is a crisis.

South Africans are, however, good at responding to crisis. Take e-tolls, for example – a large portion of the population saw this as a crisis and took strong action against it. Petitions were signed; protests organised; labour unions, business leaders and celebrities got involved. We heard about it for months on the radio, television, in newspapers and all across social media.

People felt that it was the government wasting their tax money and that it would hurt the economy. They felt it was discriminatory, that the process was mired in corruption, and that the government was not listening to their concerns.

These same concerns play out when the government spends over R250 billion on the education system and standards remain in the gutter. The difference between collapsing education and e-tolls is that the consequences are not immediate glowing arcs on the highway, beeps on our dashboards, and a traffic fine in the post. The consequences are far worse but will only show 10 to 20 years from now – so we do nothing. A collapsing education system will undermine the foundations behind economic and social success.

Poor education means that people do not have the tools to create their own economic growth. It distorts trade; bad public education means that only those wealthy enough to receive private education will succeed; widening the inequality gap and exaggerating the social problems that go with it.

A broken education system leads to people placing more emphasis on short-term needs voting for policies and parties that promise to meet them. It leads to public idleness and desperation resulting in increased crime and drug usage.

If South Africa has one of the worst in the world, then all other priorities should fall away while it gets sorted out. We place far too much importance on the government. There is a sentiment of “if government doesn’t sort it out we’re doomed”.

Yes, public education is the responsibility of the state, but if they don’t step up to the plate then we can’t just sit around and talk about how things are going downhill

It’s all very well to toss around (Nelson) Mandela’s overused quote of “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”, but his words were meant for action, not for Facebook likes and calligraphy attached to pensive photos.

Everybody has something they can teach, and knows somebody that wants to learn. Everybody has a way that they can get involved in building the skills of somebody else on a large or small scale and for our own good, we must get involved.

* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein