Opinion

Our house is on fire

Mamphela Ramphele

We as South Africans recognise that when our house is on fire, we all have to pull together to put out the flames.

We as South Africans recognise that when our house is on fire, we all have to pull together to put out the flames. No one should imagine we are going to have a comfortable conversation, certainly not with me.

I am going to talk about excellence and equity in education. I had thought I was done with it because when I was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in 1995, I had to bring the message that excellence and equity are interrelated and complementary: you cannot have one without the other.

UCT had a great track record of excellence in many areas, but it had yet to embrace equity—an essential part of sustaining and enhancing excellence. So I never thought I was going to have to talk about excellence and equity to progressives—but we’ve lost it, we’ve just lost it.

You cannot have excellence and equity in education without a national vision of excellence and equity. Such a vision would very clearly and unambiguously articulate our values, which would then find expression in our practices and our social relationships.

Let me give you an example of a country that you may not think too highly of—Rwanda. When we were voting and being very smug about our freedom, they were bleeding, literally and figuratively. But Rwanda has pulled itself from that genocide and has a “Vision 2020”. It’s a tiny little country, landlocked, and called “the land of a 1000 hills”. But it’s a feisty country.

Its Vision 2020 is not just articulated in a document, it’s lived by President Paul Kagame. Its vision is to be a country that wins, because it is a centre of excellence and knowledge. It’s saying: we have the people, we have the commitment to become a knowledge-based society.

They have set up a school for girls because one of the horrors of that genocide was rape of women and deliberate spreading of HIV/Aids. You go into any of the classrooms in that school and ask any of those girls where they want to be. They say: I want to be an astronaut, I want to be a civil engineer. Their dreams are not small. How does a small country like Rwanda do it? They’ve literally made ploughshares out of swords, turning a military base—which they don’t need—into an educational centre, the Kigali Institute of Technology, where East African countries send their best students.

We don’t have a vision as a nation, and a people without a vision perish. We have developed an education roadmap—a milestone in what should be an education recovery process. But where should that road lead and how do we get there?

We need a vision so we can paint for ourselves what greatness can look like, and to use the gaps between that vision and our present reality to measure the depth of our crisis. Any other country would realise they had a crisis if only 7% of the 20% of students who get university exemptions have proficiency in maths. But not us.

We have failed our children. The cumulative impact of what we have done to our education system post-1994 is just shocking. Since then, on average only 29% of pupils who start school end up with a matric certificate. Think about the 71% who go through school without getting a piece of paper that attests to their achievement.

We have had university exemption numbers hovering around the mid-teens—until of course we did some miracle and it became 20% in 2008. I don’t know of any country in the world spending as much as we are spending that has 50% of its 20- to 24-year-olds—the crème de la crème of the population—not in school, not in training, not employed.

I think that what’s happened since 1994 is that most of us said: well, now it’s me, myself and I. We wouldn’t have done the arms deal if it wasn’t for me, myself, I. We wouldn’t be continuing the legacy of underperformance in the school system: “I don’t care what happens here because my children go to private school and they speak English.” Me, myself, I. “I can buy private security, I can buy private healthcare.” Me, myself, I.

There’s failure of leadership at every level. We have all been to a lesser or greater extent in denial about the impact of the legacy of the past on us—the unresolved issues of superiority complexes in the white community, inferiority complexes in the black community. How do you explain politicians going to Soweto and speaking English—who are they trying to impress? Unless we want to prove we can quote Shakespeare?

And we are also in denial about the culture of mediocrity we have inherited from the past. Add to that the fact that the struggle for freedom had with it the terrible approach of “freedom now, education tomorrow”. We had teachers paid for five years, seven years without doing a stitch of work. And now we expect them to teach? They got away with it for all those years, so why would they teach now?

We don’t take that into account when we talk about what is happening in our education system. We also mismanaged the downsizing of our teaching corps. And that was on our very own icon Madiba’s watch.

We have the highest level of teacher unionisation in the world—but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities. It’s on employment, not professionalism. And the rights only pertain to the teachers, not the pupils. A member of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), a former teacher, confessed that when her daughter came home and said: “Mom, I’m not going back to that school, the teacher doesn’t know the difference between history and geography”, she protected the teacher instead of standing up for her daughter’s right to be taught properly.

I was in the Eastern Cape last weekend, where I was told about countless principals who have been promoted who are Sadtu members and who are known to have misrepresented their qualifications and their experience. When the inspectors say no, Sadtu simply goes to the education department in the Eastern Cape and says: “We have deployed you to this position, you shall promote this person.” That’s me, myself, I.

We have the unresolved issue of how do you teach, what medium of instruction do you use in a multilingual society? We even fight with Afrikaners who are trying to hold on to their Afrikaans language. People don’t even know there is a language called Sepedi—that’s my mother tongue. If you do not teach children from grade one to at least grade four in their mother tongues, you are separating them from their parents—there is no storytelling that can happen.

You should not be surprised that parents cannot participate in the school system—you are alienating them from it. And the teachers who are meant to be teaching these children in English don’t read, don’t write, don’t comprehend the very language. So are you surprised by the scorecards?

Think of the curriculum in two ways—the hidden curriculum and the articulated curriculum. We have neglected the hidden curriculum in the same way that we messed up the articulated curriculum.

The hidden curriculum is really about the home, the nation, the classroom environment and what lets children come out and ask: “Who am I?” Children who really are proud about who they are—who are comfortable with their gender, with their relationships—are such a joy to watch.

But our children are being given signals that everything they value is not valued. That starts with the language, but it’s also going everywhere else.

The inferiority complex instilled by living in marginalised communities prompts children to ask: “When am I ever going to get out of this community?”

We are still speaking about “minorities” and “majorities” in 2009! We need a conversation about what it means to be a citizen of a free, democratic, non-racist, non-sexist South Africa. We have written it in the Constitution, but we don’t know what it means, we don’t know how to live it.

Can we please have that conversation? Because then the classroom conversation will reflect the conversation of citizens.

I really believe that we have an opportunity to go back to basics. We’ve made a mistake with outcomes-based education (OBE)—and we’re stuck with this OBE like a dog that’s become rabid and can’t let go of its bone. Tinkering with it and renaming it the National Curriculum Statement does not deal with fundamental gaps between what teachers know and what they are to teach.

We need to let go of OBE and focus on the basics in education. Because I promise you, when Zimbabwe gets its act together, they are going to go back to basics. It doesn’t take much to let go of this bone—it’s got an odour around it.

So let’s commit to working together and walking together, to make our education excellent. There’s no other way: we have to articulate that vision of excellence. We must have leaders who commit to promoting excellence in everything they do. And all of us have to walk together because, as the African saying says: if you want to walk fast, walk alone; but if you want to walk far, walk together.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and managing director of the World Bank. She is now chairperson of Circle Capital as well as of the government’s new Technology and Innovation Agency. This is an edited version of her address on August 31 at the University of the Western Cape, which was the second of the Education Conversations series

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