Race is an obstinate variable

Before we begin to make prescriptions for South Africa’s failing education system we need an accurate diagnosis of the gaps in educational achievement. One key diagnostic question is to establish, from analysis of metadata and from theory, what the most binding influences are for percentage per population group of those achieving academic level grade 12 or higher. The question arises because constraints bind differently.

Policymakers need to take this into account, which often doesn’t happen.

In analysis of the metadata on overall differences in percentages per population group achieving grade 12 or higher at national and provincial levels, segmented by race, gender and age, race emerged as the most binding constraint in our education system.

The “percentage achieving grade 12 or higher” patterns for the provinces can be divided into three groups.

  • The first pattern is that in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, the percentage for whites exceeding the percentage for Asians decreases over time, as does the percentage for coloureds in relation to blacks.
  • For the Western Cape and the Northern Cape, the percentage for whites exceeding the percentage for Asians decreases over time, but the percentage for blacks in relation to coloureds increases over time.
  • In the Free State, the percentage of Asians  in relation to whites is reversed, and the percentage for coloureds in relation to blacks decreases over time.

The results by province suggest that changes in the patterns might occur in future as follows:

The black percentage has either overtaken the coloured percentage or is closing the percentage gap. These include Western Cape (overtaken), Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo (closing).

Although the white percentage is substantially higher than the Asian percentage in all areas except Free State, the difference is decreasing over time in some the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. Because these differences vary, the time it takes for the Asian percentage to catch up with the white percentage will also vary.

In KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the coloured percentage is substantially higher than in the rest of the country. The reasons for this are not clear.

Although patterns show some improvement by black people over time, race continues as an obstinate variable with deleterious effects on people’s achievement levels, particularly black people. Inferentially, race is the most binding constraint and should therefore be targeted for what it is and does.

Four typologies of race have been identified: demographic race, socio-economic and political race, pedagogic race and linguistic race.

Demographic race is based on an essentialist view focusing on physical traits according to which whiteness is regarded as pure, with levels of degeneration ascribed to South African black people and to a lesser extent some minorities.

Mundane articulation of demographic race per se cannot account for variances in academic achievement, nor can biology account for the gamut of social issues historically associated with academic progress. In quantum physics and cell biology, we also learn that genes do not control life, and therefore cannot control social phenomena or human behaviour such as educational outcomes.

The inscriptive and prescriptive social aspects of race are the ones that make a huge difference. Thus, demographic race can only become degenerate when it is misused and manipulated, as in the racial discrimination under apartheid and colonialism, and as in the deleterious legacy apparent in the academic attainment levels indicated above, where demographic race remains a salient factor.

Socioeconomic and political race that labelled whiteness as sacred is the potent variable, entrenched as white hegemony and privilege, that influences academic achievement in South Africa through persistently racist inequity in distribution of resources. In this dispensation, black Africans are educated to maintain the system as administrators rather than to be skilled and innovatively entrepreneurial, thwarting full entry into an empowered and engaged citizenry.

READ MORE: You can’t not talk to kids about race

This dimension of race has been evident as a telling variable in academic achievement levels since 2005, following the release of the first cohort study and subsequent studies on undergraduate student performance trends in South Africa. Numerous social anomalies such as inequality, poverty and unemployment have been identified in the literature as directly associated with the academic progress of students and emancipation of the disenfranchised.

The country should begin afresh in addressing the issue of race despite some of the milestones that have been made through legislation to address it.

Pedagogic race is based on assumptions that elevate knowledge systems created by a particular race and impose them on other racial groups, creating a pedagogy of the privileged in which that of other races — the pedagogy of the oppressed — is deemed inferior. Pedagogic race impoverishes pupils when it should empower them. Its antonym is decolonised knowledge in which “the knowledge of every ethnos is shared, and where each respects the know-ledge, experiences and systems of the others”. It touches on the real core of teaching and learning, the know-ledge systems, the curriculum and its mode of delivery.

For Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, pedagogic race is “antidialogical”, with its main aim being to “suppress critical apprehension of reality through critical thought and free communication”.

A manifestation of linguistic race is a remark on language policy by one black academic at a university in KwaZulu-Natal, who argued that isiZulu had not acquired sufficient linguistic power to be used a language of instruction in higher education. So when and how is it going to acquire that linguistic power if it is not in use in the field? How do you learn in a language that is foreign to you as an indigene and expect to be empowered? How do you learn without resources that include language itself as the embodiment of knowledge?

Linguistic race elevates the colonial languages and refuses to accept polyglotism in teaching and learning. Empirical evidence has identified three ways in which language can affect students (particular non-English speakers) in South Africa:

  • Limited terminology or vocabulary, where the issue of language is associated with “naming”.
  • Syntax, which concerns grammar in language.
  • Sounds, in relation to the speed with which a language is spoken or pronounced.

Literature also confirms that linguistic race is a barrier to indigenous epistemological access and epistemic success when students are taught in a foreign language.

Overall, linguistic race begets linguicide, deprivation of one’s use of one’s own language in teaching and learning, thus denying access to useful knowledge and epistemic success for black people.

The net effect of these four types of race in combination is epistemicide — deprivation of both epistemic success and epistemological access for black people.

We need a revolution of the relationships targeting race that have been distorted by colonialism and apartheid.

The colonial education system debarred a multitude of voices from engagement in constructing our worlds and knowledge systems. Pragmatic advancement will need to encapsulate both cognitive and socioeconomic diversities. Cognitive diversity refers to the acceptance that we have diverse views given our backgrounds, including culture, but which should not alienate us as we are one — umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (you are who you are because of those who surround you). Socioeconomic diversity relates to the differing sociologies and economics that shape us as individuals.

For changing the curriculum, pedagogic race has been identified as a constraint in our education system in the sense that imposed and alien knowledge systems have deprived students of epistemological access and epistemic success.

Linguicide has been identified as an undesirable outcome of linguistic race: the current education system does not accept polyglotism in early learning or in basic and higher education institutions in South Africa. We need to democratise the curriculum so that it allows polyglotism for epistemological access.

Above all, epistemicide produced by the combined effect of the four types of race requires a revolution of a whole education system by a process of decolonisation.

Bheki kaMpofu is a scholar and research-preneur at The Holistic Scholar (The Scholar) hosted by patreon.com

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