Dr Mamphela Ramphele

SA needs to wake up from the complacency that has allowed us to tolerate a failing education system for more than 18 years. It is no longer plausible to blame apartheid for our appallingly poor education and the shocking conditions under which teaching and learning occur in our society.

Our teachers and pupils deserve better. Our country deserves better.

We need to focus on radical change in our education system. A critical ingredient is leadership at all levels to transform our approach to education into one appropriate for us to become a winning nation.

Citizens, parents, the private sector and the government must step up to the plate and lead the education system out of its present dismal state.

First, the government must lead and be held accountable for good governance of the education system. Citizens must demand a higher level of performance and accountability from the government.

Our education system is actively generating poverty through the massive failures of governance at the provincial and national levels.

There is a culture of impunity that is evident in the responses of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and the provincial authorities in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

It is shocking that despite court orders and other interventions from civil society and individual citizens to ensure basic provision of education infrastructure and support to schools in the neediest areas, nothing much seems to change.

Why is the president not providing leadership in this critical matter?

Our ambitions to reindustrialise and to compete in tough global economic conditions will not be realised unless we commit to radical change in our management of education and training.

We are being left behind by poorer African countries, our peers in the Brics club (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the rest of the world, which is forging ahead in the global knowledge economy.

The identification, nurturing, development and utilisation of talent is the feature that distinguishes successful societies from failed ones. We are missing opportunities to play to our strengths and to compete in today’s global knowledge economy.

Second, lack of policy coherence and effective implementation have undermined our ability to exploit the power of information technology to transform our education system. The government is conflicted as a 39 percent shareholder of Telkom – it is caught between the short-term interests of patronage and the long-term interests of the country to move towards a more competitive information and communication technology (ICT) environment.

SA has poor broadband penetration, and the cost of connectivity is prohibitive. We rank 30th out of 46 countries in Africa – Kenya, Egypt and Namibia have more affordable ICT connectivity.

We need to harness the power of information technology to bridge the gaps in opportunity between rich and poor children as well as between urban and rural settings.

There is no reason every child cannot have access to a tablet fully loaded with learning and reading material so they can learn at their own pace and enjoy the independence of searching and finding information. It is vital to cut out the middlemen who are preying on the corrupt and badly managed procurement system for basic inputs in public services.

The tender process tail is wagging the public service dog. Political patronage should not be allowed to hold the future of our children to ransom.

The strategic use of ICT to promote e-government can also improve the efficiency of government systems and reduce the burden on public servants.

Third, the private sector must stop being a frustrated spectator and become active in the radical transformation of the education and training process to enhance productivity and competitiveness. The current focus on compliance through corporate social investment projects has yielded little in sustainable transformation of the operating environment.

It is time for a turnaround strategy in which each industry should map its needs over the next 10 years and agree to investment targets. A move away from boutique projects to pooled funding with a shared dashboard to measure performance can then be used to leverage change in the public education system.

Only sustained long-term approaches can ensure lasting improvements.

Fourth, academics need to rise above the parapets of the ivory towers of teaching and learning. Academia ought to lead the charge in proposing radical change to both content and process of teaching and learning. Why are African languages dying on our watch? Why are our children being denied the wonders of African history, culture and literature?

Why are innovation and experimentation not promoted in our education system from early childhood to tertiary levels?

What new ideas have emerged from our tertiary education in the post-apartheid period to help us understand and celebrate our unity in diversity? We need to innovate to transcend our past and shape our future.

Fifth, we need to demand higher levels of professionalism from teachers and managers in return for the improved infrastructure and other inputs to support the teaching and learning process.

Citizens, especially parents, must not continue to tolerate the outrageous behaviour of errant teachers and those who should be guiding our children into responsible adulthood. Teaching is a noble profession that should not be tainted by those lacking in commitment to give of their best to each and every child. Finally, parents must rise to their responsibilities to nurture and protect their children fearlessly. There can be no excuse for parents not demanding only the best for their children. Neither poverty nor lack of education has prevented parents throughout generations from investing time and energy in their children’s futures. It’s the only logic that has driven human progress and sustainability. It’s a test no parent dares to fail.

We have a choice as a nation to rise to the challenge of the radical change required in our education system, or continue the slide into terminal mediocrity. We have demonstrated that we have the capacity to rise to monumental challenges against all odds.

We dare not fail to do so one more time.

* Mamphela Ramphele is the founder of the Citizens Movement for Social Change