South Africa is reputed to have the highest wealth inequality and poverty rates in the world. A recent World Bank report indicates that 30million South Africans barely survive on a poverty line of R992 a month. Oxfam International estimates a regular chief executive in South Africa earns 541 times more than their ordinary employee.
Making matters worse is the fact that our education system, at both basic and tertiary levels, is one of the worst performing in the world. This probably explains why we have record-high incidences of industrial strike actions, service delivery protests and violent crimes.

The population largely affected by poverty, unemployment and inequality are the youth in the 14-35 age bracket. Simply put, 3.3 million young people are unemployed. Alarmingly, a major cohort of this sector is unemployable without the requisite training to participate gainfully in the fourth industrial revolution era driven by robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and cyber-physical systems.

And since most do not possess even basic numeracy, literacy and critical analytical skills, they are pliable to be swayed by populist agendas and the sway of nefarious money-making schemes. In such circumstances, the probability of a South African Spring, much like the 2011 Arab Spring, cannot be easily dismissed.

To invoke Leninist terms, what then can be done to arrest and transcend this scenario? Which educational training models can be mobilised to prevent our country’s youth dividend turning into a youth curse whereby jobless youth hover above 50%? At present, artisanal training and development of a precariat class offer the best solutions to solve poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Vocational training among black South Africans has negative connotations dating back to the introduction of the Bantu Education Act of 1953. The architect of this legislation, Dr Hendrick Verwoerd, reasoned that blacks don’t qualify to receive university education which offered whites “the greener pastures of education” and civilisation. Instead, the majority population should appreciate their human condition of being “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, namely, manual labourers in the mines and farms.

As if on cue, when political liberation arrived in 1994, black South Africans flooded universities and the government administrators rationalised most of the vocational training centres, formerly known as FET colleges.

In hindsight, it was unwise to close and merge 152 of these FET colleges, to a meagre 50, while heavily subsidising universities. As it is known, the latter mainly equip learners with theoretical knowledge while the labour market urgently requires welders, builders, fitters, carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and boilermakers. This is a reason the present basic education minister is on record strongly recommending a strategic shift from university academic training towards a technical curriculum.

This shift is made necessary by the realisation that the existing global economy no longer has adequate space for permanent jobs.

It should be a source of national shame that South Africa is importing, among other rare skills, carpenters and welders from the Far East when we have over 264 campuses of vocational colleges.

More interventions are needed to ensure artisan colleges are resourced with qualified teachers and aggressively branding TVET colleges so that we annually produce 30000 artisans as set out in the National Development Plan (NDP). Linked to this, direct partnerships with employers are indispensable to certify that the curricula match industry requirements.

Moreover, government spending should be explicitly biased towards TVET colleges to sufficiently respond to the scarce-skills list.

Hence Minister of Mineral Resources Gwede Mantashe wisely quipped that he (has) “never seen an unemployed artisan”.

Obviously, hard decisions have to be made - by the government, parents, learners - to favour vocational enrolment from the current 710000 to a target of 2.5million by 2030 as stipulated in the NDP.

Otherwise, if we continue on the current trajectory, where there are a million students at universities, we might continue producing unemployed graduates carrying a placard on a street-corner. The other unpalatable fact is that university education is expensive and has no guaranteed investment return.

In the US, you have 44 million tertiary students with a national debt of $1.3trillion translating to an average graduate indebted with $37000.

In simple terms, it means the dream of owning a home and a car is beyond their affordable levels even though they reside in a First World country.

Maybe this is another reason why, as literary critic Stanley Fish reminds us, the University of Wisconsin at Steven’s Point plans “to eliminate 13 majors, including history, art, English, philosophy, sociology, political science”.

On the other hand, in South Africa we spend the few resources we have to elevate history as a compulsory subject.

* Sehume is a contracted researcher in the public service.

The Sunday Independent