The problems with the South African school system are not very different from those of other developing countries.
The capitalist neoliberal educational paraphernalia concerning achievement, progress and consumption have not been able to ameliorate the social ills in our societies relating to access, inequality, unemployment and limited creativity and innovation.
The system has provided a façade to legitimise hierarchy and the peasants’ and working class’s acceptance of neoliberal ideals as the natural order of things. The system has resulted in a pyramidal social structure in which the poor remain condemned to society’s base and those whose values the system espouses are elevated to the upper echelons.
Despite the repeated failures of this system to bring transformation with a human face, it has become almost a fetish, because even the comprador bourgeoisie have been baptised in the name of these values. As a result, they have turned to manipulating the system in ways that suit their new interests but, at the same time, provide the basis for its continued existence.
Instead of liberating people from the clutches of the capitalist economy’s demands, the neoliberal school system sees to it that it continues to churn out more certified matriculants, thereby creating the reserve army of a cheap and flexible labour force.
Thus, societies that the comprador bourgeoisie lead – most of whom now own the means of production and also control the profitable tender systems – cannot be liberated by the school system, which works only for the capitalists as a basis for cheap labour.
Accepting bureaucracy passively
Instead of the school system ensuring liberation and self-sufficiency among the citizens, it is based on the jug-and-mug relationship that baptises young people in the name of docility and passivity. The pupils are made both to accept bureaucracy and to stop thinking for themselves. Young people are compelled to consume ideas churned out by others, ideas without any relevance to their lived realities.
The system is not interactive, but it forces pupils to worship their teachers, who are the agents of the capitalist system and treat the people they teach as though they were empty depositories.
The system has failed to prepare young people for real life so that they could do things for themselves rather than depending on the capitalist economy as labourers for their sustenance.
The school system teaches pupils discipline, which means taking everything as “per book”, and any forms of creativity or research that do not fit into the system’s prescriptions are regarded as deviant, and those who produce any creative or researched ideas have to be excluded.
The system prepares the pupils for their lives in a capitalist society as uncritical consumers of capitalist production. It alienates its pupils exactly as a capitalist society, as expounded by Marxists, alienated the labour classes.
Real social transformation that accommodates everyone will not happen. This is because of the unending capitalist quest for the economy’s progress and growth.
A questionable reality
But, as a result of changes or shifts in the ideological material equipment that makes people creative, innovative and confident to make a living by doing things for themselves rather than depending on the capitalistic economic employment capacity, that reality is questionable.
The school system’s belief in and emphasis on credentials and certification as the only way to succeed in life mythicise reality and have led to the churning out of huge numbers of matriculants incapable of doing things for themselves and whom the capitalist economy cannot absorb.
In most cases, certification is not a proof of competence and so will never be a substitute for experience, as the education theorist Ivan Illich’s call to deschool society has shown. Last year’s Public Positions seminar on the merits and demerits of South Africa’s school system, which was convened by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, reaffirmed the system’s dysfunctionality.
But we should note that those who took part in the seminar failed, as does current scholarship, to acknowledge the ideas of other people. Some ideas raised at the seminar have their origin in Illich’s book, Deschooling Society (1971), some of which Paulo Freire later elaborated on in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (first published in Portuguese in 1968).
According to Illich, the school system offers a packaged education and awards credentials for any pupil’s successful consumption of the packages.
These are continually rewritten and adjusted, but the problems they are supposed to address remain powerful.
A commercial activity
For Illich, the school system is a commercial activity that mirrors the marketing processes of the persuasion industry. Children are promised paradise if they continue to consume these packages.
As a solution to the dysfunctional system, Illich proposes learning webs that governments should support, in which people with common interests would come together and learn by doing things in an interactive way.
But countries differ, human beings are historical and particular historical conditions influence our realities.
As a country, we are supposed to learn from the other influences our communities mirror but, most importantly, also from our historical trajectories of development.
Our current struggle to ensure justice is never waged separately from social economic justice, which the ideals of equality and the equality of opportunity underpin, and from which the idea of social levelling comes.
To equalise the conditions of our existence, the conditions of our schools should take precedence, because they have a strong impact on the subjects taught, how they are taught and the ways in which they bring about transformation.
Communities in other countries have leaned towards solidarity economies, which emphasise the humanness of human beings, rather than the continuously relentless capitalist quest for competition and progress.
In this way, the school system has been brought into an ecology that emphasises inclusivity, communitarianism and community sovereignty, not the alienating vices of schooling.
Owning the means of production
Success in a capitalist school system does not reflect intelligence or hard work – it is achieved by those whose values the system espouses. This kind of success does not result from schooling. Instead, it derives from who owns the means of production and from any pupil’s position in such a society.
This system has spawned many exclusions, and only a few from the middle classes – with their insatiable appetite to consume resulting from their conditioning at school – are accepted while the system condemns the majority to poverty.
These are the few whom we see in places such as Maboneng, Braamfontein and Newtown in Johannesburg.
They must be protected because their consumption forms the basis of capitalist accumulation, without which the system cannot survive.
An analysis of the workings of the school system outside its capitalist underpinnings would just cloud the realities we are seeking to comprehend.
Reforms in South Africa have not brought about desperately needed transformation because people can only be liberated by their participation in liberation. The technocrats’ repackaging of textbooks is among a few reforms they have implemented. This has not resulted in any fundamental changes to people’s lives because the problems they seek to solve are still with us.
Symbol of independence
The pupils’ portfolios, though a step in the right direction, are just a miniature symbol of independence, but they are manipulated in various ways to achieve pass marks in the government’s bid for a 100% pass rate.
Critical subjects are no longer deemed to be so because so many pupils are forced to drop them to help move towards a 100% pass rate.
The 100% fetish has a destructive effect on quality. The government has misaligned the reforms it has implemented and the problems it has diagnosed. This is a farce to keep the capitalist machine running.
As Freire argued, to affirm that people should be free but to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality is a farce.
The school system based on the mug of the teacher and the jug of the pupil will not liberate us from our predicaments.
What is required are structural changes that take into consideration that everything is enmeshed in everything else.
Dandira Mushangai is the deputy chairperson of the Zimbabwe Heritage Foundation. He is enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand for a PhD in sectors, skills and economic evolution in South Africa. This is an edited version of his response to the recent seminar, convened by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, titled Matric as a Metric: How Does Matric Measure the Health of Our Education System?