The hard fight for education in a short-termist political culture.

by Nomalanga Mkhize

I have on several platforms articulated the view that argues that the true crisis in South  African education is not primarily one of “administrative dysfunction” or “curriculum chaos” or even  “policy paralysis”, but that it is a crisis of “purpose” and “value” within Black society at large.

Is education valuable? What sort of education is valuable?

What is the “opportunity cost” of pursuing a longer path to education instead of going straight into the job market?

These are important questions for everyone who is in some form of education, but most important for those whose families are in socio-economic hardship and for whom education is considered one path towards family financial stability.

Similar questions on the “value” of education have been raised by Prof Jonathan Jansen, Rector of the University of the Free State, in a speech  entitled “Seven Dangerous Shift in the Public Education Crisis” .

Reflecting on events in the Northern Cape which saw parents bar their kids from going to school because of local political grievance, he comments:

“I am asking a broader question: why would a community sacrifice the one route out of poverty for rural youth in a socially and economically oppressed community like Olifantshoek and other areas of the Northern Cape? There can be only one conclusion: that the value of education has lost all meaning for these rural communities.”

He further states:

“I have a sense that this negation of the value of education is spreading in the poorest communities of the country, and the reasons are many: the inability to keep enrolled students in school for reasons that include poor quality education; an unpredictable timetable; unreliable teaching; the shortage of basic resources (textbooks and basic science materials etc);the lack of responsiveness from local, provincial and national education authorities; and the visible lack of connection between education and economic well-being in local communities.”

In other words, as he goes on to conclude, and I agree with him – the public good that is education is so devalued in the eyes of South Africans, there is no collective social will, never mind political will from leaders, no social will in communities to truly rehabilitate and restore the schooling system. Instead, what South Africans are learning to value is private education, an alternative which most will never be able to afford.

There are deeper, more sociological questions one can ask about the value of education, relating to the jobs sector and what kind of education it actually respects (formal, experiential, technical, theoretical?) and also relating to confusing and conflicting trends in graduate unemployment.

However, that I shall deal with another day.

Let’s just focus on the question of “value” in the general social sense, the sense that Jansen invokes.

One of the strange experience that i confront in community education activism is the fact that I often feel like I have to persuade the community-at-large that education is important.

But it often becomes clear that my arguments do not wash. This is because these days, when people look around them in the Black community, the most “financially prominent” middle-class Black people are no longer, as it was in my day, the shopkeepers, the taxiowners, and teachers. No, these days it is the municipal councillors, the government directors, the mayors, the ministers etc — in short, the people who are either working for government or representing government.

In addition to these there’s another grouping – the new school wheelers and dealers, I don’t want to say “tenderpreneurs”, because many of them are decent business people. Either way, these are the people who know how to lobby and associate with politicians and state bureaucrats such that it results in them being favoured in state procurement. [I have no problem with this in principle].

Now, of course, many of these people have some level of education, a substantial portion have solid tertiary education.

However, what has become apparent is that this education plays a very marginal role in their successes in their ability to secure a job, a promotion, or a tender.

In and of itself, this is meaningless, education is a multifaceted creatured, one doesnt need to obtain it formally in a classroom.

But one can argue that there is something we can consider as an “educated mind”, one which applies itself according to what it has “learnt” in relation to that specific area of work. Whether that learning took place formally or informally.

The sense that one gets is that in these circles that are associated with access to state resources either by job or by tender, the “educated mind” , the mind which seeks to apply action on the basis of expertise rather than political directive, appears to be valuable in a functionalist sense, but not in the intrinsic sense. In fact, the “educatedness” of the mind seeking employment, appears to sometimes be incidental to the appointment.

Instead, what appears to be more important is whether and how the mind can be politically co-opted for partisan rather than policy ends.

The best is to keep quiet, do your job, which, if my friends working in government are anything to go by, also entails doing the jobs of those who were hired  in spite of their inability.

In our communities, where we all live together, drink together, commune, and on occasion fight each other we are keenly aware of the trends, because we see those we know enjoying the financial returns of political association.

The message we are given is that what counts in the game to get ahead, is political acumen, rather than a display of ability.

I have been thinking about this as I digest the reports on the alleged R200million price tag on renovations of the President’s personal house. What bothered me was not so much the price tag in and of itself, but the justifications by state officials who have labelled the criticism of this expenditure as being “disrespectful” of the Office of the President or just unwittingly “misplaced”.

There was an air of patronising dismissiveness in these response to the uproar as though citizens have no right to be outraged or critical on matters involving public expenditure!

In particular, public expenditure that in this case appears to have enriched the president personally by virtue of his home being refurbished with luxuries (astroturf is a luxury in my book).

And yet here we sit in a country where the majority of public schools have no libraries, no toilets, no electricity, no reliable water, no adequate playing fields, inadequate stocks of reading books and textbooks.

I was somewhat perplexed that state officials were angry that citizens were pointing this out. It almost seems that to them the fiscus is a rigid template and there can be no room for virement or transfer of funds from one thing to another. In another words, well, since this is allocated to the president in any case, what business do citizens have to demand that R200 mil instead be used on poor Black children!

But perhaps I thought, they have not yet had the common sense to see that the fiscus operates on a zero-sum basis, what is spent in area, has deprived another.

It struck me then that there it is almost futile to try and persuade communities that we need to revive a culture that produces “educated minds”, when it is apparent that even at the highest offices of state administration,  there is sometimes an absence of ethical and sensible reasoning when it comes to public expenditure, no display of “thoughtfulness” or “educatedness” and there are no real consequences for those state officials.

I #tweeted the following as I thought through this on my @NomalangaSA account:

– What a new generation, who will inherit this mess, what we must do, is articulate a model of how to exercise just, ethical, open leadership

– The generation before us, they were courageous, they taught us how to challenge power. We must teach them how to exercise power.

– The President is basically saying, show me respect by spending more money on me, not show me respect for being an honourable leader.

– Never underestimate the capacity of your leaders to lose common sense, along with the common touch.

– Er, African Presidents, if you would like houses that appear to be comparable to western heads of states, er, build comparable economies

– And yet, Mwalimu Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Thomas Sankara provided the alternative model. Presidents get simple cars, simple clothes. Qha.

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