SA’s two school systems

On Saturday South Africans will celebrate Youth Day, a commemoration of the uprising that began in Soweto on June 16 1976. The uprising was triggered by the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction but it drew on deeper grievances about apartheid SA.

Are we likely to see a repeat of this historic rebellion against injustice? Many things have changed for the better. Education is now celebrated for its ability to unlock fundamental rights to health, liberty, security, and political participation. It can deepen self-understanding, enhance economic growth and help society to adjust to the unfolding revolutions in artificial intelligence and robotics. The trouble is that SA now has two fundamentally different school systems, only one of which is even minimally equipped to take on such tasks.

Three-quarters of SA’s 14-million pupils attend dysfunctional schools that consistently underperform when it comes to educational outcomes. In rural provinces and townships, schools have seen a significant increase in grade 9 completions over the past two decades, but educational quality remains poor. Children are going to school but they are not learning.

Too few preschool children access adequate nutrition or attend well-organised creches. Their families are poor and sometimes broken, in communities often riven by violence. Teachers are poorly qualified and motivated. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union has been implicated in the sale of posts, interference in promotions and resistance to mandatory competency testing.

The uneven provision of learning materials, buildings and facilities disrupts even well-run schools. Rural provinces and their failing and corrupt administrations cannot cope with large student numbers.

Most schools do not have effective governing bodies through which parents and communities can hold school managers, principals and teachers to account. Precisely because parents and pupils are so comprehensively disempowered, however, these prisons of the poor are unlikely to be the centres of any rebellion against the state.

Perhaps surprisingly, formerly white and Indian schools are far more likely to become sites of protest. While rural and township schools remain mostly monoracial, urban and suburban schools have become multiracial over two decades.

The children of the black middle class are now sharing some of the benefits of inclusion in a formerly whites-only arena. However, much as these schools may celebrate “diversity” and “inclusion”, they continue to be dominated by suburban catchment areas, white majority intakes, quasi-European cultures and languages, and predominantly white teaching staffs.

Educationalist Jonathan Jansen has harshly observed that the “black elite” sends its children to these schools in a “class compact between privileged whites and the black elite to keep the schools their children attend as essentially white institutions”. If Jansen is right, this is a fragile compact indeed, and it will be neither possible nor desirable to sustain very far it into the future. It is easy to see how conflict could be triggered among the supposed beneficiaries of this race and class compromise. It is even easier to see how those excluded from it will tire of their children’s marginalisation.

This is one area in which the government needs to plan ahead rather than to wait for a crisis to force its hand. “White-dominant” schools remain crucial pipelines that feed maths-literate and analytically accomplished learners — black as well as white — into post-school education and employment. The whole project of transformation depends on government’s ability to bring about meaningful change while not disrupting this key conduit of skills and capabilities.

 Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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