/ 3 May 2022

OPINION| Amend laws to allow businesses to boost education and food security

Mixed Messages Deepen Inequality
One of the best ways to achieve and maintain equal opportunity in South Africa is through quality education that targets the poor and offers them the means to gain experience and advance their prospects in a substantial way.

One of the best ways to achieve and maintain equal opportunity in South Africa is through quality education that targets the poor and offers them the means to gain experience and advance their prospects in a substantial way.

Only high quality, relevant education can provide profound, long-term empowerment. It should be a priority for South Africa because education is transformational in ways that palliative measures, including black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action, can never match. Quality universal education transforms and equalises opportunity.

Anthea Jeffrey, the head of policy research at the South African Institute of Race Relations, suggests implementing a new empowerment strategy to replace BEE, with school choice being an integral component of it, called Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged or EED.

Under an EED system, businesses would earn points for topping up the vouchers of the poorest households, or for using their research and development capacities to find innovative ways to improve the quality of schooling. 

This shift would do far more to help the disadvantaged climb the economic ladder than BEE will ever manage. The truly disadvantaged will never benefit from BEE ownership deals, management posts and preferential tenders. Inevitably, these will continue to go to a relatively small group — and often to those with the strongest political connections.

By contrast, once low-income households are equipped with tax-funded schooling vouchers, all schools will have to vie to be their choice. Poorly performing public schools will have to up their game. Many more independent schools will spring up to meet burgeoning demand. Nonprofit organisations will step up to the plate as well. The resulting competition for learners will push up standards, promote innovation, and hold down costs — as has happened in many other countries that have embraced a voucher system.

Prioritising vocational training 

Vocational training should also be prioritised and integrated into the system as early as grade eight to give many more young people viable paths towards upskilling and gainful employment in the future. 

Currently the government is underfunding technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. A mere 2% of students entering TVET colleges qualify in the minimum period of three years since the 152 small technical colleges were merged into 50 TVET colleges, placing a huge strain on their management structures. Just a third of them graduate and many of those who do wait years for their certificates. Vocational training should be the major career path for most South Africans in secondary education.

Here the private sector can be of great help too. Private companies may be involved in training, funding or sharing knowledge with workers. Also, the skills training institute may be private. The private sector can also strengthen skills development by contributing to governance through national committees or other institutional arrangements. The private sector can help identify demand for skills, feed into curricula development, deliver monitoring and evaluation activities, as well as managing public training institutions.

Food security

Data captured by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, released in 2013, showed that about nine million tonnes of food waste is generated annually in South Africa, which translated to an estimated R61.5-billion throughout the value chain in 2012.

This is important to note because more than 40% of expectant mothers were food insecure during lockdown, and we know that food insecurity contributes to the intellectual and emotional stunting of children and also means that mothers struggle to bond with their children. This means that many children in South Africa end up being neglected and vulnerable to abuse. 

This wastage can be abated, and food directed towards those most in need, if section 61 of the Consumer Protection Act is amended. According to section 61, “the producer or importer, distributor or retailer of any goods is liable for any harm … caused wholly or partly as a consequence of supplying any unsafe goods, a product failure, defect or hazard in any goods and inadequate instructions or warnings provided to the consumer”.

Section 61 could impose costly liabilities on participants in the food production, distribution and retailing chain and disheartens “good faith” food donors. In other words, there is more than enough food being produced in this country to significantly reduce food insecurity, but government legislation means that viable and edible food cannot get to those who need it most.

Children cannot learn and adults cannot function properly if they are constantly hungry. It means nothing to talk of opportunity when people are starving.

Nastascha Harduth, a director at Werskmans, suggests a Good Samaritan Food Act as in countries such as Canada, the United States, Italy and Panama to limit the liability of donors who do not act with malice.

The market already provides and will provide more if it is unleashed. The market provides enough food to deal with food insecurity so that South African children will not be stunted and unable to learn. The market already provides quality education through low fee private schools, which will help children reach a better future. The real question is whether legislation and policy will allow the market to do this for more and more people.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.