Examination leaks in the context of performativity in South Africa

Published Dec 17, 2020


This could be one of the reasons why learners, teachers, and parents resorted to unorthodox practices to ensure performativity, false academic standing, and a depicted fallacy of hard work.

Examination leaks are common throughout the world, with seemingly no tangible strategies to address this challenge. The challenge has attracted various conflicting discourses among academics in South Africa and suggestions have been put forward, but few mitigating results were yielded (Chaminuka & Ndudzo 2014; Sigauke 2004).

The year 2020 has been associated with problems that threatened the global community and affected the schooling calendar, with students spending many months without attending physical classes, and some privileged schools and learners resorting to online learning to cover the lost time. While the South African government did interventions to rescue the school year, many learners were not fully prepared for the final examinations. This could be one of the reasons why learners, teachers, and parents resorted to unorthodox practices to ensure performativity, false academic standing, and a depicted fallacy of hard work.

The leaking of the Mathematics and Physical Science matric papers is the tip of the iceberg. I am of the view that there are more leaks happening, but only these two papers have created a noise because of the perceived belief that Mathematics and Physical Science give access to job markets or higher-education institutions. Many parents, students, teachers, and principals gauge their success in relation to these two subjects. As such, the subjects have become the site of academic manipulation by various stakeholders. Because of the importance attached to Mathematics and Science, educational stakeholders – particularly students, teachers, and parents – asserted, according to Ball (2003, p. 220), that they are “ontologically insecure: unsure whether we are doing enough, doing the right thing, doing as much as others, or as well as others, constantly looking to improve, to be better, to be excellent”.

Unfortunately, the need for improvement can propel people to network with various criminal elements who have access to examination papers. Those who cheat, suffer from what Ball (2003) refers to as ‘terrors of performativity’. They want to be seen as performers at all costs. Many learners, teachers, and parents suffer from this, and unknowingly become part of syndicates that compromise the integrity of examinations.

Having made these introductory remarks, I want to zero in on the critical question that divided the South African academic and legal fraternity, namely, should the Mathematics and Science examinations be written again because of the leaks? The response to this is multifaceted and is influenced by one’s relationship with the examination mafia; whether one has benefited from the leaks or not; the economic question; the system’s credibility, moral integrity, and legal questions. I will attempt to discuss it from these different facets and conclude with what I think could be done in light of this ambivalence.

From the students’ perspective, I am sure most – despite the Covid-19 pandemic – have made strides in preparing for the examinations. There are those who prepared with the highest moral integrity (and perhaps did not have access to the papers), and those with access to the examination mafia (who perhaps did not work as hard, but only revised the paper before the examination, giving them an advantage over the others). It would be fair for those who never had access to demand a rewrite, but without the assurance that the new paper would not be leaked again. However, those who benefited and were not caught would prefer that the examination is not rewritten. Taking the latter view, it means that our education system inculcates the view that the thief is the one who was caught, which of course has negative implications for the society we are attempting to build through education.

Minister of Basic Education’s view and teacher unions

The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga – as a custodian of the department – has a responsibility to ensure that the integrity of the examination system is maintained. But she is not alone in the system and works with various elements, some of whom may be criminals. Thus, once she was confronted by the leaks, it is normal and expected that she would call for the examinations to be rewritten to maintain credibility.

The weakness of this approach is that there were no consultations with parents and teacher unions on a way forward. While Motshekga’s idea is noble and would be expected by those who love educational justice, her views are likely to be shot down, even if it is logical. I am of the view that if Motshekga rejected the rewriting, she would still be opposed. I see it is no longer about what Motshekga says, but about her personality and leadership, which some people are dissatisfied with. But for many educational technocrats who are focused on social justice, Motshekga’s suggestion is noble and expected when confronted with such ambivalence.

Teachers’ unions and groups such as AfriForum have opposed the minister over the rewriting of the leaked examinations, and the court proceedings were in favour of AfriForum and the unions. While the unions are entitled to their views in regard to this matter, my submission is that the unions know that some learners have been unfairly advantaged and as such, rewriting is the way to address the problem. The challenge is that unions seem to have unfinished business with Motshekga and see this as an opportunity to lash out against her. But I also understand the pressure on union members who appear tired of this year and want to finish everything as soon as possible. Rewriting means that teachers would have to go back to the classroom and prepare learners, and no one is ready for that. Corruption is rampant – not only in education, but everywhere – so why should teachers suffer? Again, there is no assurance that the leaks would not happen again, and perhaps more teachers and learners would benefit since we are in the digital age. Looking at it from this angle, it is natural to resist rewriting. The issue should not be treated lightly, as it has a serious bearing on the credibility of the examination system, and teachers and unions should think beyond themselves and sacrifice educational integrity based on personal differences with the minister.

Concluding, I agree with Sigauke (2004) that examination leaks are a disgrace, not only in terms of the behaviour of the culprits, but because it reflects similar levels of immorality in the wider society. I agree with Motshekga on rewriting the papers in order to champion curricula justice. I support rewriting to reinforce the notion that cheating in any form is unethical and must not be tolerated at any level.

The unions and the minister should find common ground to address their differences and not use a national crisis to undermine one another.

Now that the court has ruled in favour of not rewriting, the credibility of the education system is at stake. This credibility cannot be achieved by a court of law, but by adhering to ethical examination standards that are accepted worldwide. Where universities are waiting to welcome learners, they will be suspicious of those with high passes, while those who did not get leaked papers will be disadvantaged and could even be denied access to university. The best performers will carry the stigma associated with passing a leaked examination. I conclude by saying that doing things right has far-reaching benefits instead of compromising what matters the most.

Rewriting was the correct way to go, no matter how painful and distressing it would have been. So that, when we welcome first-years to university, we know they are here on merit.

Chaminuka, L., & Ndudza, D. (2014). Student and Staff Perceptions on Examination Malpractice and Fraud in Higher Education in Zimbabwe. Asian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 2 (2), 78–90.

Sigauke, A. (2004). Examination Malpractices in Schools. Views from Secondary Schools in the Harare Region: Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Bulletin of Teacher Education 13 (1), 52–72.

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