/ 30 August 2023

Rewriting Africa’s story through education starts with each one of us

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The government’s aim to provide redress of inequalities among the disadvantaged remains elusive

The local and global media are perpetuating a particular story about Africa. Our leaders are corrupt; we are a continent in perpetual need; we will never be able to develop solutions of our own because we lack the resources. And so on. It’s a story we all know pretty well and it’s not an uplifting one.

Education is a key that could unlock the capabilities we need to write a new story, but at the moment, that key just doesn’t work. In South Africa, only an estimated 20% of public schools are operating adequately. The rest are not able to provide students with a quality education that offers genuine social mobility. 

There are many factors at play – diversion of resources, limited numbers of quality teachers, failing infrastructure and a healthy dose of loadshedding to make everything worse.

Steering education in the right direction is an incredibly complex issue needing synergy between both business and government to provide schools with what they lack. A staggering 18 000 South African schools do not have internet access for both teaching and learning, for example. But “fixing” education doesn’t only mean providing access to the internet and refreshing ways of teaching familiar subjects. It means rethinking the very fundamentals of what, how, and why we teach our young people. 

Going soft and the need to synthesise new education models 

Yes, it’s important to teach our children coding and robotics, as announced by our government in 2021, but recent research has shown that so-called soft skills are as important, if not more so, than tech skills when it comes to acquiring a job. And they’re especially useful for entrepreneurs wanting to get their own businesses off the ground.

Such skills include empathy for others, appreciation and understanding of different cultures, patience, discipline, foresight, time management, effective communication and great problem-solving and critical thinking skills. When synergised, these skills give people a sense of leadership and resilience. But few learners receive the opportunity to hone these abilities at school, let alone gaining access to technical skills.

And as things stand, it can feel like a pipe dream that we will ever in fact get to change this. But I refuse to believe that.

Instead, I think that it’s time that we act to synthesise new models of education that bring together the best of the public and private sector to overcome resource constraints and innovate to ensure that young people get an opportunity to gain the right skills so that they can understand and address the challenges in the world today.

That current systems are falling short seems obvious. As Jon Foster-Pedley, dean and director of Henley Business School Africa says: “Traditional universities are great at training elites, but what we really need right now is a national movement of skilled and confident managers that can get things done. People who are not afraid to trial new ideas, even if they are not perfect, who know how to work with money and motivate others and to take others with them as they rise.”

This will require that business schools and universities innovate and change up what and how they teach. And business and government need to step forward to provide the resources, the skills and the innovation to fill gaps where they can. 

At Tangible Africa, for instance, an innovative approach combined with generous sponsorship and support has helped us to solve the issue of digital access for schools in South Africa by teaching students in townships and rural areas in South Africa how to code – but without the use of computers.

Businesses that are in the position to do so can also invest in their people by sending them back to school to gain the relevant skills training at all levels while they work, and the government could explore policy options to support the wholescale upskilling of the public service. 

Tapping into African opportunity – personal journey

There’s plenty of research already out there that tells us Africa is incredibly rich in resources and opportunity. The more educational opportunities we give to others, the more we gain as a result of those people’s subsequent contributions to the economy. The World Bank reports that there is widespread agreement that education, independent of innate ability, helps spur innovation and technology, and it contributes to productivity and economic growth.

For me, this is not just a theoretical concept — it is personal, because I was one of the people who has been given life-altering educational opportunities that have changed my life and prospects.

When our family business went through a difficult period, my family endured a period of plight. On hearing of my family’s situation, my school funded my education from grade 9 until I finished matric. Right after that, my mother’s employers gave me a bursary to study at Nelson Mandela University. Years later, when I was completing my postgraduate diploma in management, Henley Business School Africa covered the costs through their MBAid programme.

Three huge kindnesses that I am motivated to pay forward. Because I know the value of these opportunities I was given — the genuine depth that they gave me — I know how they’ll impact others.

We all, at some stage in our lives, have been supported and helped by others and we can make a huge impact on another person’s life by finding a way to help someone else in our turn. Let’s all take responsibility for rewriting Africa’s story.

Jackson Tshabalala is Engagement Manager at the Leva Foundation and one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans for 2023.