We urgently need to complement our 1994 political settlement with an emotional settlement. Our failure to tackle the burden of our ugly past is threatening to hold our future hostage.
No society can afford to lose multiple generations of young people to a failed education system as we have done since 1976. We need to hold open, deep, healing conversations to enable a process of emotional settlement. The unacknowledged toxicity of the burden of our past is undermining our ability to build trusting relationships.
We need to acknowledge the privileges that white people continue to enjoy, which were generated by a colour-coded governance system. We also need to acknowledge the pain of impoverishment on the majority of the population by the same system.
We need conversations at home, within faith-based communities, and at institutional levels in both the public and the private sectors to heal the wounds of divisions that are tearing us apart. Healing the wounds of our past would help us to reconnect as fellow citizens beyond the curse of the colour-coded system.
An emotional settlement would unleash the talents and energies of all citizens to work together to restructure our society into one that is more equal and just. It would enable empathy to flow in our society and bind us together as citizens united in our diversity. It is through the motto of living the unity in diversity that we can link hands as unselfconscious South Africans to build ours into a just and prosperous society.
We need to articulate an education philosophy to drive an education and training system that embodies the values and tenets of ubuntu. This would more appropriately reflect the constitutional democratic system we embraced in 1994. Young people are right to call for fundamental transformation of the tertiary education system so it can assume its rightful role as a thought leader in the transformation of the entire education and training system.
A reimagined education system would prepare all our children and young people to become active, passionate citizens. Such an education system would need to be of high quality – from Grade 00 to tertiary level – and freely accessible to all. Civic education and the teaching of African history would need to be at the core of such a system to ensure that citizens are rooted in understanding where we come from and what we committed to become.
Free high-quality education and training would generate the skills essential to drive our moribund economy. Skilled workers would earn higher incomes, and drive demand for goods and services, as well as investments in sustainable neighbourhoods. Requiring every graduate to spend at least three years contributing to public service as teachers, health workers, social workers, lawyers, accountants, among other professions, would enhance the quality of public service and create a win-win system.
I belong to generations of medical doctors who benefited from full-cost funding from the apartheid government of the time for medical education. We also enjoyed fully catered residential facilities as extensions of our academic institutional spaces. Secure residential spaces enabled us to be exposed to a diversity of cultures and afforded us enriching, lifelong networks of colleagues. We paid off the loan portion of our funding by working in the public service for three years. What stops our post-apartheid government from providing full-cost support to all our young people to become the engines of development and confident citizens of a vibrant, just, prosperous democracy?
Young South Africans are also demanding exposure to the richness of African history, including the history of science. They would like to know about the seminal contributions Africa made to reading and writing, mathematics, cosmology, architecture, philosophy and other forms of knowledge as part of their heritage.
What is needed is a reimagined education and training system that is unapologetically Afrocentric in curriculum content, form and symbolic expressions. It is not possible to excel in education if the very essence of one’s language, culture and philosophical outlook is treated as aberrations from the norm.
Poor outcomes reflect our failure to ensure a school system that creates a positive environment for professional teaching and learning guided by values-based leadership. The inferiority complex of underprepared, demotivated black teachers derails the future of the majority of our children, especially those from poor backgrounds. The wanton
neglect of African languages in our education system perpetuates inferiority complexes among black people and contributes to poor academic performance.
Experts arguing against free, quality education as unaffordable and undesirable, because it would benefit mainly the rich, are discounting the “public good” benefits of high-quality education. Educated people, rich and poor, are essential to a well-functioning political, social and economic system. In addition, our capacity for credible targeting of poor people in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has been seriously compromised by a culture of corruption. Poor rural young people have often been excluded, while those who know how to game the system get funded.
Our challenge as a society is not lack of resources, but misdirected priorities. There is a misalignment between our aspirations to be a just, prosperous society and our allocation of resources. Eliminating the huge wastage and corruption within the system, estimated by the Auditor-General to be no less than R30 billion annually, would free significant funds. Adding the billions of rands unaccounted for in state-owned enterprises could double the amount of freed resources. Any contemplation by our government of a nuclear built programme at the same time that it pleads poverty with respect to free education makes a mockery of the aspirations of young people.
Spurious arguments are also advanced that what is free inevitably becomes poor quality. Botswana has provided free, quality education at all levels for all its citizens for decades with spectacular results, recognised by the Ibrahim Governance Index placing it second-best governed just behind Mauritius. Rwanda’s free, high-quality education has been key to its most improved status on the Ibrahim index – a far cry from the horrors of the 1994 genocide.
We also need to learn from the anti-poverty programmes of the 1930s that eliminated white poverty in the apartheid period, which included housing, social welfare, education and training, and job creation. The successful execution of these programmes secured the Afrikaners the powerful position they occupied between 1948 and 1994. A holistic socioeconomic programme is urgently needed to turn the current challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality into opportunities for fundamental transformation of the structure of our socioeconomic system.
Refocusing our public and private resources to transform the living conditions of all citizens would create huge demand for infrastructure investments.
The transformation of the legacy of apartheid geography in our cities and renewing our ageing infrastructure would generate huge economic benefits and heal the wounds of the past.
Such investments would create jobs, on-the-job training opportunities, and take economic growth and development to unprecedented levels.
This is decision time for us. Are we prepared to reimagine ours as a just and prosperous democracy?
Such a reimagined society would enable us to commit to rebuilding it on the foundations of high-quality education and training for all.
* This article originally appeared in City Press.