School system produces dropouts who are used to drive unrest

Our beloved country is burning and bleeding and this is partly a reflection of a school system that is often hyped by high matric pass rates at the end of each year, yet fails to account for the millions of learners who have fallen by the wayside.

According to the latest National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, 750 000 learners dropped out school in 2020. 

The Covid-19 pandemic can be used as a scapegoat, for now. But prior to this, department of basic education figures from 2014 show that out of 1 100 877 learners who enrolled for grade 10, only 610 178 made it to grade 12 in 2016. A disturbing 44.6% of learners either dropped out or repeated either grade 10 or 11. 

What we saw in last week’s violence and looting is a hopeless, economically disempowered generation that the school system has ignored. Two theories — social reproduction and conflict theory — by Karl Marx help us understand how some politicians see this neglected cohort of learners as a group that can serve their agenda. Given that legal action is being taken against corrupt individuals and the fragility of our economy, this unrest couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment for an attempt to overthrow a faction in the governing party. 

As pointed out by academic Asaf Hussain as far back as 1976, we cannot deny the fact that as long as inequalities exist in the education sector, economic inequalities will persist. Township learners are, on average, two to three years behind learners in the same grades in affluent areas. According to academic Francine de Clercq, South Africa has a dual education system where only 20% of the schools produce quality results and 80% are classified as poorly performing. 

The Covid-19 pandemic ensured that the same township learners missed out on more than 50% of contact time with teachers, whereas their counterparts in affluent schools continued to learn online throughout the hard lockdown. Those learners maintain their position of privilege and the disadvantaged continue to get the short end of the stick. 

The scenes of looting and destruction of property in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are a reflection of the levels of desperation that former learners find themselves in after being failed by the education system, particularly the schooling system where close to 50% of learners’ interests cannot be catered for. 

As academic Savo Heleta writes: “Since the end of the oppressive and racist apartheid system in 1994, epistemologies and knowledge systems at most South African universities have not considerably changed; they remain rooted in colonial, apartheid and Western worldviews and epistemological traditions.” 

With South African learners’ illiteracy at 27% and numeracy standing at 40%, plus close to 80% of school governing bodies believed to be dysfunctional, according to two different studies, the notion of improving our education system is an illusion.

Our government needs to interrogate our education system because worse is still to come through the hands of the youngsters who they have failed. Our education system needs to delink from the colonial matrix of power, which academics Pam Christie and Carolyn McKinney noted as defining culture, labour, intersubjective relations and knowledge production. Failure to do so will mean that inequality and anarchy will become the order of the day. 

The question to our leaders, as posited by educationist Jonathan Jansen is, are they going to be drivers of change or drivers of BMWs?

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Palesa Mofokeng
Palesa Mofokeng is a master’s student in educational technology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a lecturer at the Rosebank School of Education.
Bafana Mohale
Bafana Mohale is a master’s student in educational policy and leadership at Wits University and the education manager at Rays of Hope. They write in their personal capacities

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