/ 17 February 2017

Letters to the editor: February 17 to 23 2017

Positive spin: President Jacob Zuma in Parliament.
Positive spin: President Jacob Zuma in Parliament.

Stats hide the truth about maths, science

President Jacob Zuma relies on statistics in his State of the Nation address (Sona) to “prove” how South Africa has progressed under ANC rule. In the process he often relies on unqualified and selective statistics.

In the latest Sona, he quoted inter alia from a speech the minister of basic education delivered earlier: that learners have improved by 87 points in mathematics and by 90 in natural sciences in the 2016 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) examinations.

He said this proves South Africa’s education in maths and natural sciences “showed the greatest improvement in the world”. (The average score in the Timss tests is 600 points.)

That sounds impressive but it is a large-scale deception. The Timss test is conducted every four years and provides participating countries with the means to compare learner performance in maths and science. Grade four and grade eight learners are tested in all countries that take part in the study.

Because of South Africa’s dismal performance in previous tests, it was decided in 2015 that learners in grades five and nine would participate this time. It can be compared to a school athletics meeting in which 15-year-olds are allowed to participate in the under-13 category.

Despite this, South Africa “improved” from being the last (among 48 participating countries) to the second-last position for grade four maths, second-last for grade eight maths, and last for grade eight science (out of 38 participating countries). South Africa did not participate in grade four natural sciences.

So, with a bit of deception and misuse of statistics, everything improves under ANC rule. – Professor HC Viljoen, Stellenbosch

■ The Sona is a festival of the rich. It serves the purpose of (1) displaying the might of the state through things such as military parades, (2) showcasing the fashion and dress sense of the social and political elite, and (3) projecting the false image of a robust democracy that provides airtime to even the “disruptive voices” in society.

It is part and parcel of the process of the reification of social reality.

Dispensing with the Sona ceremony could be a useful saving of state resources and public funds. The president can just get into a television studio and present the address, with all the television and radio channels airing it.

Copies of his speech can be made available immediately to the public online. Then Parliament can discuss it at its next sitting. – Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Durban

■ In a democratic South Africa, every learner has a right to quality education. But we still have complaints from schoolchildren – from those who study outside, squat on the floor or attend class under bad conditions, which is an obvious hint that we are not doing enough to offer them what is rightfully theirs.

On mud schools, Zuma said that “895 schools now provide a conducive learning environment”. As much as I do not trust the numbers on education given by Zuma in his Sona, I do trust the objectives of the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative, and it’s good to know that through this programme we can at least try to eradicate substandard mud schools. – Siwaphiwe Myataza

Dignity and ubuntu the way to go

That the all-white panel on South African identity at the annual meeting of the philosophical community caused consternation is understandable (“Philosophers at war over colonial bias”, February 10).

It seems some of these philosophers think they can see and judge what we mere mortals cannot: our own experience of identity. Yet they are blinded to their own identity, their whiteness has become invisible to them.

I think of Paulo Freire (the “image” of the oppressor is internalised by the oppressed) and Frantz Fanon (Black Skins, White Masks), and I think of Steve Biko (who pointed out that white people need “white consciousness”) and Desmond Tutu, who articulated ubuntu: my human dignity is realised through respect for your human dignity or, put another way, umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu (a person is a person through other people).

We can’t talk about racism, sexism, African philosophy or African identity with any authority unless it is grounded in an understanding of our socioeconomic, political-historical and ethical position with regard to power, possessions and privilege. It is our own eyes that gaze at other human beings and “other” them.

Yes, this might result in white guilt – or black guilt – because we have failed to address the injustices of the past and acknowledge how present injustice is perpetuated.

We all have multiple identities, both personal and social, that can be challenged and defended, or that we can accept as fluid and changeable – because our lives change.

Judith Butler, a feminist philosopher, talks about “performative” identity. In South Africa, our memory of racial identity still runs deep and is still enacted through structures and systems that have their own institutional memory.

When an “identity” gets stuck on to us by sociohistorical memory, arising from an oppressive past, it is difficult to see how we can move from a sense of guilt or powerlessness to a sense of responsibility without violence.

We need to affirm our individual and group identities as positive and strong, and work to uphold the dignity of all.

The tendency is for the dominant to use their own “superior”, more privileged and “authoritative” perspective, even in academia, to dehumanise others. This causes a reaction.

Yet philosophical wisdom (“phronesis”) comes through reflexivity, an attentiveness to who I am in relation to who you are – ubuntu. The crisis in the African philosophical -community and in universities because of the call for a decolonised education is an opportunity to -reconsider our assumptions, our “certain certainties”.

As our roles change, so do our identities. We each have a basic human right to express our individual and group identities in our contexts, even in academia. It seems that when we lose the right to express our identity our own way, in our own cultural and philosophical framework, we are all impoverished. – Nora Saneka, Durban