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Age is no impediment to doing my job

Dear Professor Vale,

Let me first thank you for wishing me the best of luck in my appointment as deputy minister of higher education and training and the time you took to express your views in writing on issues of higher education and ­training in South Africa ("May I suggest, Deputy Minister", Getting Ahead, July 6).

Your subjective comments on my age have undertones of undermining the prerogative of the president, with little appreciation of the role I have played in Parliament, having risen from being an ordinary MP in 2009 to becoming the whip of both the portfolio committee on transport and the portfolio committee on public service and administration and later the cluster whip of the governance and monitoring cluster. In 2010 I was appointed as a commissioner of the magistrates' commission, working under Judge President Bernard Ngoepe, and at no stage were my legal credentials ­questioned. On the contrary, the commission further appointed me as chairperson of the Mpumalanga judicial committee on lower courts.

Age did not serve as a barrier to my functions and understanding of Parliament or the judicial sphere. I served with zeal and diligence. Although many preoccupy themselves with the work and failures of the executive, it is prudent to

understand that the state comprises three organs and the sooner we appreciate the independent and important roles that each play, the better for all of us. Such an understanding could shape our comments and analysis.

Your letter starts with a brief overview of the history of universities in South Africa. But it has gaps and overlooks one crucial point: that many South African universities excluded the African majority for many decades, because it was not in the interest of colonial and apartheid authorities to see Africans entering tertiary institutions and receiving a quality education. The same applied to artisan training.

Sheltered employment
As a political scientist, you will recall that the major aim of the 1924-1933 pact government of the National and Labour parties was to keep skilled jobs for white workers. A series of laws also excluded blacks from careers in strategic areas such as science, engineering and technology.

White workers received sheltered employment and training under the so-called civilised labour policy. This meant Africans had no access to technical skills.

From the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the apartheid state created ethnic universities. Even the most diverse of them at the time, the University of Fort Hare, was classified as a tribal university and had to accept mainly isiXhosa-speaking students. Leading academics such as Professor ZK Matthews and others left Fort Hare in the 1950s because they disagreed with apartheid policies in education. From the 1940s to the 1990s, universities were also theatres of struggle against apartheid.

The founders of the ANC Youth League (Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and others) started their political activism as students. Their youthfulness never became an impediment to their commitment to the national cause. They set the tone for a more militant form of African nationalism that changed the face of South African politics and contributed to the birth of a new democratic South Africa.

Political repression in the 1960s also meant that the best brains in the country were muzzled, jailed or forced into exile. Many talented black teachers moved to newly independent African states north of the Limpopo River, where they assisted in setting educational standards in the post-colonial era.

Racism and inequality
This brain drain weakened education in black ­educational institutions, although a significant number of good teachers continued to serve their communities under adverse conditions.

The unequal and unjust university system, characterised by racism and inequality, also contributed to the birth of the South African Students' Organisation and the broader Black Consciousness Movement in the late 1960s. Again, it was people from the younger generation, such as Steve Biko, who confronted the apartheid state in universities and high schools.

In your historical analysis you also neglected to mention that students who were not designated white had to apply to the department of education to study at whites-only universities. Only a certain quota entered those well-resourced institutions. This was gate-keeping in its crudest form and it contributed to the racially based skills gap we still experience today.

In 1994, South Africa discarded discriminatory policies and embarked on the expansion of access to university education. You will agree with me that any democracy has to address the imbalances and injustices of the past.

In South Africa, we are still addressing outdated institutional cultures that continue to reproduce racial and patriarchal practices. A new government had to address ­educational inequalities because they had a direct impact on the lives and liberty of South Africans.

Human capital
The state, as an organ of development, has to play a central role in building a transformed higher education and training landscape for a progressive South Africa. This is not, an act of intrusion or interference with the academic enterprise, as some would like us to believe.

Universities prepare citizens for responsible social and economic roles. They do not create jobs, but produce students who will add value to the development of a country.

That is why the state is injecting massive funds into university education. The aim is to build the human  resource capacity of the nation. This human capital will then play a critical role in the economy and social development of the country.

The new post-school sector includes universities, colleges, adult education centres and levy-grant institutions such as the sectoral education training authorities and the National Skills Fund. All institutions in the post-school system must co-operate with each other and all qualifications must be part of a bigger system. There must be pathways for people to proceed to higher levels of study.

We believe that academic support is an integral part of university experience, because our students come from an education system characterised by inequalities. We need to empower our first-year students and reverse the trend of a high number of first-year dropouts.

We stand for a system that has no dead ends. As a department, we work for an integrated education and training system. I am convinced that this new educational landscape will succeed because it addresses the developmental needs of South Africa in the 21st century.

Special attention
Our academics have space for research and share outputs on the developmental needs of the country and the world. We need a thousand Archie Mafejes and Rick Turners who would lead in generating knowledge and become citizens of the world. Unlike in the past, we will not ban academics who disagree with us. Mafeje was forced to leave his country in the 1970s because he was prevented from getting a post in the predominantly white and liberal University of Cape Town. Our department and government will never follow that path.

Also, we are reviving the teaching and learning of African languages in universities. Teacher development is supported: we encourage young people to join the teaching profession as a profession of choice. We are working very hard with the department of basic education in ensuring that our primary and secondary schools receive well-qualified languages, mathematics and science teachers from our colleges and universities.

All these initiatives are in the public domain and I invite you and other academics to work with us in strengthening both the basic and post-school education and training systems.

The human and social sciences are also receiving special attention, because they are critical to the development of any nation. We have a serious challenge in the form of unemployed graduates and a need to reskill a significant number of them. The question of unemployed graduates could be linked to slow economic growth globally.

But there could be other factors, such as the archaic academic architecture of some of our institutions. Therefore, our academics need to preoccupy themselves with the ­status of their universities and whether these institutions are still responsive to the needs of society.

These are transformation issues. They are not influenced by a desire for quantity but for quality. The building of two universities – in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape – is thus an important chapter in the history of higher education and training in South Africa. For the first time, inclusive and responsive institutions will be created in line with the vision of a nonracial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa, as defined in our Constitution.

I am convinced that the department of higher education and training, under the leadership of Dr Blade Nzimande, is on the correct path. I am part of a winning team that is striving for quality education and training for all South Africans.

I am sure you will agree with me that the country faces challenges that demand that we put the interests of South Africa first and work for a ­better country and a better world.

With kind regards
Mduduzi Manana

Mduduzi Manana is deputy minister of higher education and training

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