What do these results mean?

Former education minister Kader Asmal floated into mind at about 7.15am on Thursday morning.

For it was then that radio reports released the first — and still the most startling fact about the 2010 matric results: a massive 7,2% increase in the national pass rate (67,8% as against 60,6% in 2009).

And this in a year that saw the most severe disruptions in schooling experienced since democracy dawned in South Africa — the month-long teachers’ strike, the chaos this in turn caused to the writing of the preliminary examinations and, to a lesser extent, the mid-year Fifa World Cup break in teaching and learning.

So why did Asmal disturb some early morning coffees? Because it was he who as education minister presided over the previous largest year-on-year increases in the pass rate – and eventually few came to believe him.

First, he took the pass rate up by 9% in 2000. Educationists know that such big increases in mass-scale exams from one year to the next are implausible. But the public, and especially children and their parents and teachers, were understandably only too pleased at some good education news at last.

But when he took the pass rate up by a huge margin again — 7% in 2002 — scepticism started simmering. And when he then pushed it to an educationally implausible 73,3% in 2003, his days were numbered — amid overwhelming public incredulity, he was unseated after the 2004 elections.

Disbelief
We do not want to believe that we have reverted suddenly to an era of politically, rather than educationally, driven matric achievement. And, as we report elsewhere in this week’s Mail & Guardian, some well-respected educationists say they have no reason to worry about the credibility of the 2010 results.

To some extent, we too see that improvements in areas such as provincial and district management, which have long been nurtured, could explain this year’s sudden leap.

That is, we do not think the frankly disastrous education terrain that Asmal inherited in 1999 has remained static since then.

But it is Umalusi itself that prompts our questions: writing for the M&G this week, the state quality assurers, who verified the credibility of the 2010 process, make the educationally impeccable point that, “all things being equal”, one year’s cohort of candidates for a large-scale exam “should perform at a level comparable with last year’s cohort”.

Quite so. And Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga knows as well as Umalusi that this axiom is a consensus of education thinking globally. That is, no doubt, why she spent so long, and right from the start of her speech on Thursday, heavily emphasising what she called “the integrity, credibility and legitimacy of [the] exams”.

But can it plausibly be maintained that 2010 was indeed a year in which “all things were equal”, to paraphrase Umalusi? Surely not.

We will not need to wait long to have our questions about how reliable these results are answered — the 23,5% who obtained university entrance passes (another all-time high) will face their first university exams in about six months.

But, for now — and as always — we congratulate the learners who succeeded in this most taxing of exams.

And now for the good news
In this first edition of the new year the Mail & Guardian has taken the unusual step of including a special section devoted to good news in South Africa and the world at large.

This is more than a simple gimmick, or a riposte to detractors who accuse us of dwelling single-mindedly on doom and gloom. As the second decade of the new century unfolds there is much in our country and the world that is deeply worrying, not least the continuing economic slump that threatens jobs and livelihoods across the globe.

Greed and power hunger continue to tear at the social fabric and deep inequalities persist. But there is also much to celebrate. In every walk of life men and women of goodwill and vision continue to fight for a better life for all.

There can be no question that the ANC has become a vehicle for avaricious adventurers and careerists interested only in fattening their own wallets, but that is not the whole story.

The movement’s nonracial, nonsexist and democratic ideals, gestated over almost a century, remain a beacon for many leaders and members, who continue to struggle for its soul.

The leaders of the ANC Youth League may be ambitious carpetbaggers but, as the ANC’s national general council made clear, they are increasingly running into opposition from powerful elements within the party.

As Rapule Tabane argues in this issue, South Africa is very far from being the failed state that we see in Zimbabwe. In the provision of key socioeconomic infrastructure, notably housing and clean water, much has been achieved. And although there is still a mountain to be climbed, there are encouraging signs that South Africa is becoming a less violent society — the official murder rate has fallen sharply since the mid-1990s.

The M&G will continue to highlight the political failures and social ills of our country, but that should not be construed as Afro-pessimism or a conviction that it is doomed to slide downhill.

At base we are cautiously optimistic about where South Africa is going. The spotlight we seek to turn on what is wrong and needs to be fixed should be seen as our small contribution to a fairer, more prosperous and happier society.

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