Education creates active citizens who know their rights and are empowered to use these rights to hold their govern- ment accountable and are able to fully participate in their economy, says newly established political party Agang SA leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele.
However, she notes that education departments were often led by the weakest government Ministers.
“Few postcolonial countries saw education as strategic enough to appoint the best to head their Ministries. On the contrary, the weakest and least powerful political appointees tend to be appointed to head the education portfolio,” she said when delivering the keynote speech at the seventh African Education Week last month.
“It appears, sometimes, that some gov- ernments have little appreciation of the strategic importance of education to their economies and its vital role in creating citizens who take their place in socially cohesive societies,” Ramphele added.
She said active societies were those in which the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom for all citizens were protected.
Ramphele stated, at the opening of the event, at the Sandton Convention Centre, that high-quality education should be made available to everybody and that, given the right learning environments and access to opportunity, children will play, learn, work and have the potential to become better citizens.
“We have made great strides as a continent, growing our economies, attracting investment and seeing peaceful elections in constitutional democracies.
“The growth of the African middle class is encouraging, but, at the same time, it is middle-income developing countries like South Africa where the inequality gap is widening at an alarming rate,” she stated at the four-day event focusing on the theme of empowerment for all through high-quality education.
Ramphele emphasised that in many African countries there are two-speed education systems in which the middle and upper class have bought out of the failing public education system and are paying for first-class education for their children.
She pointed out that the gap between poor and affluent children was growing in Africa.
Left unchecked, this threatened the future stability and prosperity of African countries, particularly given the high percentage of young people in many of the continent’s populations, said Ramphele, adding that, for the time being, education is one of Africa’s greatest missed opportunities.
“Education in Africa is plagued by mistakes and mismanagement, played out over generations from the first postcolonial governments. We have not and, in too many cases, we still do not invest as much as we should in education,” she said.
Further, Ramphele pointed out that this year’s World Economic Forum, which took place in May in Cape Town, debated ways in which Africa’s talent could be unlocked.
“Business leaders know that education creates productive and capable workers, while academics and policymakers set down fine strategies,” she said, noting that there were many teachers and educators who took pride in their profession and care in their role as the guardians of young people.
“And, yet, we are still failing too many of our young people. From my time as vice chancellor at the University of Cape Town, I understand and I share the frustrations that many people have with the failings in our public education system.
“At national government level, we do not prioritise the allocation of our resources, nor do we put policy into practice,” she stated.
Ramphele emphasised that, of all African countries, South Africa was suffering most from the impacts of a public education system failing on a massive scale.
“It is tragic, because what ignited the fervour for freedom in our country’s struggle against apartheid were young people who revolted against an inferior education system and being taught in a language that was not their own,” she said.
Ramphele added that she felt angry that, after 20 years since achieving freedom in South Africa, government was still failing millions of young people.
“Sixty-six per cent of students who enrolled in Grade 1 as six-year-olds in 2001 did not make it to or did not pass the matric exams in 2012, and today’s Grade 6 learners average only 43% in literacy tests and 27% in numeracy tests,” she said.
Ramphele also pointed out that only 10% of 2012’s born-free cohort were eligible for studies at tertiary level.
“South Africa, with the highest proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education, at R234-billion a year, has the worst performance of all African countries in maths and science,” she said, pointing out that the country ranks 143rd out of 144 countries, only better than Yemen – a conflict-ridden United Nations-classified least-developed country in the Middle East.
“In 20 years, the South African government had not adequately addressed the biggest challenge – poor teacher quality and training,” Ramphele continued.
She highlighted that, in a recent study, just 38% of Grade 6 maths teachers could answer questions from a Grade 6 test.
“We have a second-class system that accepts second-rate results. Thirty per cent or 40% is not a pass. No one wants a nurse, teacher or plumber who only knows 40% of the requirements in their field.
“What dismays me is that these falling standards are not caused by a failure of policy and are not down to a lack of spending on education in South Africa,” she said, blaming the situation on a failure of political will with regard to living the values of human dignity, equality and true freedom.