The “monumental failure” in South African education was not Hendrik Verwoerd’s fault but that of the current government, former anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele said in Durban at the weekend.
Commenting on a Talk Radio 702 interview with President Jacob Zuma, in which he blamed Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, for the mess in schools, Ramphele said children under apartheid’s “gutter” education were better educated than today.
She was speaking at the Educational Management Association of South Africa conference at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“By jove, at least the kids could write and read. And many of them understood history and understood geography,” she said.
In the radio interview last week, Zuma also defended Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and the government on the Limpopo textbook saga.
Ramphele said she could not understand why “no heads were rolling” and citizens were not “jumping up and down” about the crisis.
SA could self-destruct before 2020 if it continued on this downward trajectory, she added.
The time had come to question the credentials of SA’s leaders.
In Asian countries, their cabinets were made up of engineers, finance experts, architects, lawyers, people with experience and technical expertise who were capable of directing, intervening and managing a modern political and economic system.
“Look at us. Give me a profile of our cabinet and tell me whether or not the capacity to intervene and direct is there. You can’t even deliver textbooks,” Ramphele snapped.
In a double whammy Wits education professor Mary Metcalfe, who also addressed the meeting, said education in SA was a “burning platform” that was disappearing under the nation’s feet despite its being critical for survival.
Metcalfe quoted a 2007 survey that looked at a sample of 18- to 24-year-olds and found that, in that year, 2 million had not reached matric and, of those, half had not passed grades 7 and 8.
“There’s stuff happening in our schools which means that large numbers of young people are leaving school. With what sort of sense of themselves can I ask you?
“What sense of self-esteem and belonging and worth? And what did we do to them in the time that they were in our schools that gave them a sense of dignity and self-worth and the possibility of contributing to society?”
While she believed the Basic Education Department’s Action Plan to 2014 provided the right framework to improve learning, “we are short of human resources and money, on a scale to address the burning platform”.
Metcalfe cited focus group research in KZN, Mpumalanga and Gauteng which revealed that “teachers felt they must deliver miracles” despite a basic lack of resources and government support.
Ramphele had stronger words.
“There’s no excuse why a child anywhere should not have textbooks, let alone thousands upon thousands of children whose futures are being destroyed on our watch.”
She took aim at the South African Democratic Teachers Union, saying it was failing the country.
“Particularly in the poorest areas, teachers are failing us, and when you look into what the problem is, you find teachers are being forced to defend mediocrity.”
Metcalfe quoted Harvard professor Richard Elmore, who said: “Teachers are accountable for the performance of their students. But they are accountable to the extent that they have received the necessary resources and training for them to fulfil their task.”
The feeling of people working in education was summed up by one of the focus group respondents, Metcalfe said.
That respondent had said: “We are just confused cockroaches.”