When a rural high school in central Swaziland recorded a whopping 73.25% failure rate during the 2016 junior certificate external exams, the resultant national uproar elicited an equally shocking response from the affected learners. They explained that their schooling was made difficult by the revealing clothes their female teachers wore in class.
Although this response produced a spate of memes on social media, particularly on Facebook and WhatsApp, the sad truth is that these results, and a few equally poor performances in other schools, highlight a deep problem in Swaziland’s education system that could soon result in a crisis.
Once the poster child of Southern African education after the country’s independence in 1968 and well into the late 1980s, Swaziland’s education system is now tottering on the brink.
Ever since the government dropped the O-level qualification for finishing high school more than a decade ago and replaced it with the international general certificate of secondary education (IGCSE), many parents would now rather their children write the South African matric exams because, they believe, they stand a better chance of being accepted at tertiary institutions there.
At the start of the academic year for South African universities last month, the South African High Commission in Mbabane was inundated with an unprecedented number of applications by young people seeking study permits to enter universities and other institutions.
When applications for study permits opened in early January, parents and their children reported that they had to queue from as early as midnight to be among the quota of 50 who were attended to each morning.
As the situation became desperate, one young person was quoted as saying she had arrived at the high commission at 10pm the previous night and was 15th in line. She slept in the corridor outside the offices to wait until 8am the following morning when the offices opened.
In the 23 years since South Africa’s transition to democracy, the number of Swazi people seeking entry into the country’s universities has risen, mainly because of an equally growing neglect of the University of Swaziland (Uniswa) by the government, which has forced parents to look elsewhere for their children’s higher education.
Uniswa has, over the years, had to deal with a growing number of school-leavers seeking placement there even though funding has dropped. Today, it barely survives.
Part of the reason for the poor funding is government has diverted much of the country’s education budget to Limkokwing University of Technology, the Malaysian institution which set up shop in Swaziland after King Mswati struck up a close relationship with its founder. It is seen as the monarch’s personal project.
Mswati intends establishing the SADC University of Transformation for all countries in the region in collaboration with Limkokwing University, to be sponsored by the Swazi government, as he announced in August 2016 when he took over the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community.
Uniswa, which counts among its alumni from the 1980s former public protector Thuli Madonsela and mining magnate Patrice Motsepe (who did his BA law degree there before proceeding to the University of the Witwatersrand for his LLB), is no longer the preferred institution of higher learning for a growing number of parents and students.
Now that many Swazis have realised that the chances of studying at such institutions as the universities of Pretoria, Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, among others, are a real possibility, South Africa is the preferred destination for many.
It is an option also preferred by families of the powerful and privileged in the country. None of Mswati’s children have done their tertiary education in Swaziland, preferring to fly overseas on completion of high school to further their education.
Despite Uniswa still being an internationally accredited institution of higher learning, offering qualifications that sit comfortably alongside those of many universities in South Africa and the world, today it is no longer seen as “cool” among students.
Some schools in Swaziland have dropped the IGCSE school-leaving qualification and are offering South Africa’s matriculation certificate in the curriculum so that Swazis can enter universities there.
Some parents even opt to let their children complete the IGCSE in Swaziland and then redo their last two years of high school in South Africa, at huge expense, so that they acquire the matric certificate needed to enter a South African university.
The arrangement to offer Swazi students a matric certificate option hit a roadblock at the end of last year when Swaziland’s ministry of education announced that, from 2018, the South African government would no longer recognise matric results from Swazi schools because the arrangement was illegal.
It is an announcement that has caused panic among parents in Swaziland.
According to Swaziland’s director of education, Sibongile Mtshali, some schools in the kingdom received matric accreditation through a private arrangement they made with the KwaZulu-Natal education department.
Through this agreement, which had the backing of Swaziland’s education authorities, the department received examination scripts for school leavers in Swaziland at the end of the year and submitted them for marking in South Africa.
Yet, after several meetings between Swaziland’s minister of education, Phineas Magagula, and South Africa’s minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, it was agreed that this arrangement be terminated. Motshekga is reported to have told her counterpart in Swaziland that this was because there was no legal instrument to give effect to this arrangement.
In other words, the arrangement is illegal.
Even though Mtshali has warned schools and parents to drop the matric option, Magagula has given parents hope that the arrangement could still continue well into the future.
Swaziland is arguing that a SADC protocol on education that allows for countries in the region to co-operate on educational matters does give legal effect to this arrangement.
The minister promised to continue discussions with his South African counterpart to persuade the basic education department to withdraw the letter giving notice to the termination of the arrangement.
What is strange, though, is that, although the education minister has promised to take time and resources to smooth things over with South Africa’s educators, he has done little to deal with the kingdom’s growing education crisis.
A former leader of Swaziland’s teachers’ union and a retired principal of the oldest teacher training college in the country, Magagula was among those who strongly opposed government’s haphazard changing of the education system from O-level to IGCSE.
That he is not doing anything now to fix the problem and would rather rely on South Africa’s education system beggars belief.
Severely under-resourced, the University of Swaziland needs a huge financial injection to keep its doors open. It also needs to expand to accommodate the growing number of school leavers, many of whom cannot be accepted at the institution because of limited space.
The minister has yet to pronounce on the huge failure rate at Ngcoseni High School in Mankayane and the many other schools around the country whose poor performance should worry any government. In that way he should also work towards solving the country’s educational needs.
Bheki Makhubu is editor of The Nation magazine in Swaziland.