USE THE BEST: Schoolchildren wait to board the bus to return to school in Harare. Zimbabwes education system has virtually collapsed, with most teachers going to neighbouring South Africa. Its a waste of human capital to have talented Zimbabwean teachers working as waiters and security guards while our kids are stuck with lousy local teachers, says the writer. Picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

When the ANC came to power in 1994, they were bound to make mistakes, policy and otherwise. But one blunder that seems very obviously wrong-headed and destined to haunt the country adversely for many years to come is the crucial matter of how best to accelerate black empowerment.

Why on earth did our government spend so much time grinding on about black economic empowerment when education was by far the most powerful tool to advance the formerly oppressed?

Granted, we achieved an instant middle class through BEE, which was important.

And we should have known then, as we know now, alas, that education is much too long-term a project for the quick-fix mindsets of most politicians.

Anyhow, here we sit with the most sophisticated economy in Africa but an education system that is, by all informed accounts, worse than apartheid’s. With 40 percent unemployment and a crippling skills shortage, the ANC government spends 6 percent of the country’s GDP and the biggest chunk of its annual budget on education, yet our school results have actually declined under ANC rule – not least because many teachers in the public sector are not properly trained.

Half of all pupils drop out before taking their final matric exam and only 11 percent get good enough passes to qualify for university. Alarmingly, this implies that an under-educated class will lead South Africa for some time to come.

The scariest aspect of so tragic a situation is that nothing is likely to change for the better in the foreseeable future.

With teachers having the strongest of unions, a populist alliance running the show, teacher-training colleges closed and no shortage of money being thrown forlornly at the problem, we as citizens are going to have to think out of the box for solutions to this vital problem.

Interestingly, the most creative ideas for educational advancement on this continent came some years ago from Robert Mugabe.

Being a headmaster, he really cared about learning. He knew that education was the only solid way to fight poverty and create opportunities of every kind.

So when first at the helm in the 1980s, he immediately resurrected Zimbabwe’s collapsed rural schools by inviting Commonwealth teachers, whose working calendars differed from Zim’s schools, to come and teach local classes during their holidays. Many highly qualified educators responded, year after year. It was a brilliant project, which helped Zimbabweans to become the best-educated population in Africa.

Mugabe also asked school-leavers who had done well in the Cambridge O and A-level exams that Zimbabweans still write to support the post-bush war reconstruction effort by teaching in rural areas.

Meanwhile, Old Bob set a superb example himself by coming home from the Presidency each day and erecting a blackboard on the verandah at State House, where he personally taught the household staff, including his gardeners, so that they could pass their school exams and be eligible for university training.

One of those gardeners eventually achieved an economics degree and worked in Zanu-PF’s economic planning ministry.

Let’s face it: South Africa’s education crisis is just too big for our current government to solve.

For that matter, public schooling is such a challenge all over the world that it is becoming increasingly privatised almost everywhere. Casting randomly around the globe for possible solutions to our failing schools, you spot South Korea’s extraordinary success right at the top of global educational rankings, Barack Obama recently having pronounced it the best bar none.

Its most important aspect is a hothouse network of private cram schools – an idea that entrepreneurial South Africa would do well to emulate, especially as we have thousands of well-qualified Zimbabwean teachers kicking around our cities or employed in menial jobs because they are locked out of the profession by the unions and by government’s fear of xenophobia.

Perhaps the churches would lend their facilities to these crammers in order to curtail costs.

It’s such a waste of human capital to have talented Zimbabwean educators working as waiters and security guards while our kids are stuck with lousy local teachers.

(For proof of the value of good, dedicated Zim teaching, note that the Cambridge GCE A Level English Literature class of refugees at the Central Methodist Church achieved 100 percent success last year.)

We need to draw squandered teaching talent to the government’s attention through countrywide citizen-driven protests against the poor-quality education on offer in so many of our state schools.

The politicians will listen if we shout loudly enough: nothing is more dangerous to them than giving a compelling crowd the cold shoulder.

Perhaps if we offer remedies, the ANC might feel less impotent and more motivated to improve our education – though, to its credit, the government has achieved 100 percent enrolment in primary schools.

Among practical ideas, Brazilian sistemas are integrated learning systems developed in a country with similar educational backlogs to ours.

Publishers don’t just print the textbook, they also provide a range of activities, including teacher training, digital content and the right technology for classrooms at all levels of society.

We need to look at attractive performance-based bonuses for our good teachers. Urgently. In Rio de Janeiro, experimental schools in the poorest areas are focusing on artistic and sporting activities to make education fun and interesting.

While still teaching the three Rs, reading, (w)riting and ’rithmetic, they pull the community in to assist.

“We have dance tutors from Mare – a slum famous for its samba schools,” says the organiser. “There is also a guy… who shows the children how to fix bicycles.”

The school invites mothers and grandmothers to help educate the kids in all manner of life skills.

In Lima, an entrepreneurial chain of cooking schools offers the three Rs combined with the training of chefs in a specialist Peruvian cuisine that would readily translate locally into African fusion cooking aimed at the tourism industry.

Isn’t it high time “black educational empowerment” became this nation’s motto?

* Holland is the author of several books, including the internationally acclaimed Dinner With Mugabe