Ramphele: 'We overcompensated for apartheid'

Stop the rot: Mamphela Ramphele. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Stop the rot: Mamphela Ramphele. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

The post-1994 government's moves to redress the apartheid inequalities teachers and black people had suffered amounted to "overcompensation", AgangSA leader Mamphela Ramphele told an overseas conference this week. This explained the country's low education standards and the weak results in the majority of its schools.

South Africa had "a very curious situation, in that in overcompensating for the injustice against teachers and black people in the past, we actually have structured an education system that is committing injustices on a daily basis", she told about 1 000 delegates at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday.

Clarifying her comments subsequently for the Mail & Guardian, Ramphele said: "In addressing the legacy of an unjust system, our government has lowered the expectation of the education system to the extent that three out of 10 is a pass mark to accommodate the reality of poor teacher training, weak content knowledge and lack of confidence to educate our children for excellence."

In her summit address she remarked that "something is very wrong. We spend more money on education than many other countries in Africa, yet 80% of our schools are failing."

But if South Africa had set about fixing the education system properly in 1994 there would never have been a need for race-based admissions at universities, quotas and affirmative action in the first place, she told the M&G.

"Higher education has been playing an ambulance role.
[It has been taking in] young people who have come from a schooling system that has not prepared them adequately for learning at higher-education level."

Responding to a recent study that concluded that it would take more than four decades to transform the overall staff profile of South Africa's 23 universities so as to reflect national demographics, she said, "If you put [all transformation] at the door of higher education, you are missing the point altogether." 

The University of KwaZulu-Natal and the ministerial oversight committee on higher education jointly released their research last week. ("University transformation will take 43 years, study says", M&G Online, October 23.) 

"We are now blaming the ambulance driver for not driving fast enough, with people dying on the way to hospital, rather than blaming the system that produced the casualties," she said. "There would have been no need for affirmative action; for all of those things."

The M&G reported last week on research showing that South African pupils are far behind the education levels they should have reached relative to their grades. 

Commissioned by the Centre for Development and Enterprise, academic Nic Spaull's study found that by the time Eastern Cape children reached grade nine they were, on average, almost three full grades' worth of learning behind the curriculum. 

The report said that socioeconomic backgrounds played a far larger role in such outcomes than was previously known: 37% of the difference in South African pupils' reading performance could be explained purely by looking at household wealth and parental education.

Ramphele echoed this, saying wealth distribution still followed racial lines. "We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission focusing on gross violations of human rights [but] we did not look at the violations of socioeconomic rights.

"Given our legacy, poor people remain predominantly black, wealthy people remain predominantly white," she said.

The status quo would have been different, however, if South Africa had had the benefits of a "socially levelling, functional, high-quality school system".

"Most of the kids at school who qualified through the 1990s and early 2000s would have been able to find jobs, support their families and change their status."

Schools are arenas for change, she said, "yet we have failed to set the foundations of a society that we envisage in our Constitution: united in its diversity, prosperous, democratic and one that is characterised by social justice".

The ANC and its alliance with the South African Democratic Teachers Union had politicised the education system to its detriment, she said, "so people with no leadership capabilities become heads of schools". 

"The fish rots from the head. If the school principal can't lead the school will go down. If parents are dysfunctional then domestic violence is the outcome. If the head of a company is not on top of his or her game it malfunctions." 

Victoria John's attendance at the World Innovation Summit for Education this week in Doha was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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