“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela
The average South African citizen had high hopes for the future of South Africa. Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. A new constitution had successfully been negotiated. And, the first democratic elections had been held. In short, South Africa had successfully navigated the challenging move from the Apartheid era to a modern democracy via the CODESSA negotiations and without a civil war breaking out. Amongst other campaign promises that were made, the African National Congress (ANC) as the ruling party pledged to break the cycle of poverty that had afflicted the majority of South African citizens via the vehicle of an upgraded education system.
As Nelson Mandela stated in the quotation mentioned above, education is a powerful tool to overcome the scourge of poverty. In essence, if a person is educated and can read and write, etc., he can apply for a high-paying job. Thus, he can feed and clothe his family, as well as educate his children. Ergo, education is a primary weapon in the fight against poverty.
The revamped education model: Success or Failure?
The Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga noted during the 2012 debate on Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address that “the [education] system is more equitable and pro-poor than it was before 1994.” In theory, the teaching and learning model has been changed to provide equal education for all the children in South Africa, irrespective of race, social class, and religion. There are a number of no-fee paying schools to accommodate poverty-stricken families, with free textbooks allocated to schools, as well as school feeding schemes for children whose parents cannot afford to buy food for their children.
If we only paid attention to Motshekga’s comments, we would be lulled into a false sense of security that all is well with the basic education system. However, this if far from the case. The harsh reality is that the schooling in South Africa is failing most of its learners. This can be seen by the high university dropout rate as well as the violent protests during the Student “Fees Must Fall” campaign.
Andre van Zyl, who is the director of the Academic Development Centre at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) quoted research done by the Council of Higher Education (CHE) in 2013. This research found that 41% of students that started their university studies never completed their tertiary education. Additionally, 50%-60% of those students dropped out during their first year.
Surely these statistics must beg the question of why there is such a high dropout rate. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this question. However, some of the given reasons are the disconnect between the primary education system and the tertiary education system as well as individual student’s housing and financial issues. Many students are reliant on government National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to cover their tuition, housing, text book, and food costs. The reality is that the NSFAS system seems to have problems of its own, and students don’t always seem to be guaranteed funding for the duration of their studies. Furthermore, students whose funding requests have been rejected were told to appeal the decision. On 17 February 2017, the head of NFSAS, SizweNxasana, noted that “we realise that our [application] system did not go smoothly in all areas, and would like to apologise to all students who have been inconvenienced in one way or another at their respective institutions.”
The way forward
It seems to be accepted by all the role players in the education sector that for South Africa to achieve its radical economic transformation goals, the first step is to educate the young people of the country. There is no doubt, however, that the South African Education System still faces many challenges. And, in spite of the many attempts to fix this system and the reports to the contrary, the government is yet to be successful.