Vavi: Apartheid to blame for education system

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, on Tuesday blamed the structures of apartheid for the current state of the education system, despite 16 years under a new democratic regime.

Speaking at the opening of a skills and education conference, Vavi said that racial differences still pervade the education system.

“To understand our situation today, we have to look at the way education and training were manipulated and deformed under apartheid, in its drive to impoverish and disempower our people,” Vavi said.

“The foundation of apartheid’s discriminatory path was the denial of access to formal education and skills for the majority of our people. Even the four-year education colleges were largely barred to black people, which left black teachers with only the lowest-paid teaching jobs.

“As a result, many workers learned their skills at the workplace, informally, and without receiving any certificate,” he said.

Vavi argued that with the transition to democracy, the unions worked with the democratic movement to try to overcome the divisions and unfairness in the education and training system. “But we still have very far to go.”

“We still have huge inequalities, based now on class rather than formerly on race. Because most of the upper class is still white, however, racial differences still pervade the education system. In 2003, just more than half of white learners got a matric exemption, but only a tenth of Africans.

Not surprisingly, our universities are still about half white. And about three-quarters of management in the private sector is still white.

“In the area of skills development, the main target post-1994 was to improve access to higher and further education for black workers, so that they could achieve qualifications, improve their levels of skills and their career prospects and reverse the discrimination of the past,” Vavi said.

“Unless we reverse the racist and discriminatory education policies of the apartheid era, we will never be able to reach all the other goals we have set ourselves in the struggle for the socialist transformation of our society.”

Vavi did point out that Setas had been around for long enough to enable the assessment of their successes and failures, particularly their effect on economic growth and the levels of unemployment.

“While we acknowledge their many important achievements, we have to admit that they have not lived up to many of our initial expectations,” he said.

“The trade union movement must share the blame for some of the failures of the Setas, which represent the best example of Cosatu’s ability to bang the doors until they open, then fail to walk through the open doors. Employers too, despite largely picking up these gains, have not driven the skills revolution for the benefit of the economy as a whole,” Vavi added.

“Can we claim that we have succeeded in our efforts to transform the skills training system? Despite all our work and accomplishments, we have to say no; we still have very far to go.

“A major concern is that the systems for recognising prior learning are still not generally in place. Consequently workers, especially black workers, still suffer from historic injustices. Where the systems do exist, they often need so much theoretical work that ordinary workers cannot afford to get the qualifications anyway,” Vavi said.

“A second concern is that most workers still do not have access to training. According to the Labour Force Survey, white men are still more likely to get training than black workers. Elementary workers have almost no access to any training. The skills levy is still low compared to more successful Asian countries, and even so much of it remains unspent. That is a major cause for concern,” he added.

“There are various reasons for the problems facing the skills development system. Firstly the planning process in most companies remains firmly in the hands of management. We have not sufficiently empowered workers and shop stewards to develop demands and fight for them.

“Many employers regularly, and illegally, refuse workers paid time off for training. So they are left having to take courses at weekends or in the evening, which is difficult, especially for people with families,” Vavi said.

Again he said Setas were not blameless. “Too often, their extensive planning requirements, even if well intentioned, have stalled progress. We must focus on getting more training to more people, and less on establishing bureaucratic systems and commissioning endless consultants’ reports.”

Vavi also argued that skills development had not been sufficiently linked to employment equity. “Many companies have separate committees to deal with the two issues. Yet for workers one of the main aims of skills development is so that they can advance their careers and overcome the historical racial barriers imposed under apartheid,” he said.

“We cannot afford just to discuss skills any longer in a strange jargon that that disempowers ordinary workers. We have to empower workers and their shop stewards to identify what they want from skills plans and negotiate and campaign for it,” Vavi concluded.—I-Net Bridge

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