Our Education System Is Being Strangled To Death By Toxic Politics

Twenty three years is a long time for any country to fix education. But we will never fix our system because it is strangled by toxic politics.

16/01/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 16/01/2017 06:43 SAST
A school boy looks as he walks past prisoners who are cleaning and painting his school in Qunu, eastern cape, July 18 2012.

On 27 April this year it will exactly be 23 years since we became a democracy and made a promise to every South African to "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person". Yet it was the same tale of force-fed good news as we announced our matric results for 2016 last week. Our politicians tell us that we have a good story to tell; that the pass rate is better than last year; that we should celebrate because more young people attend school and sit for matric; they tell us our education must be understood in our historical context of apartheid.

Of course, they succeed in convincing themselves and only themselves of this "good story".

Twenty three years is a long time for any country to fix an education system or at least steer it in the right path. But in this country we will never fix our education at all because it is strangled by a toxic mix of politics at the core of which is an ill-concealed hypocrisy by those who preside over it. We need to liberate our education from this toxic mix of politics if we are to have any chance of fixing it. Just what are the barriers to systemic reforms in our primary education?

Kinsmen in ransacking

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and the African National Congress (ANC) government are joined at the hip in ransacking our education system and destroying the lives of many poor young people in the villages and townships. SADTU is a vicious mafia, styled as a trade union, which directly attacks our education system with a thousand knives. To them, education is political warfare and a power struggle; it has to be infiltrated with comrades who are good at branch meetings and ultimately annexed. Thanks to the anointing of their kinsmen, the ANC, and other co-conspirators, SADTU has succeeded in this.

Professor Volmink and his team stated what the country already knows in their "Jobs for Cash" report of May 2016: "The Department of Basic Education has retained semblances of managerial and administrative control in three of South Africa's nine provinces. These are the Free State, Western Cape and the Northern Cape. In all other provinces, SADTU is in de facto control."

SADTU's assault on our education system is vicious and the scary thing is that they believe they are entitled to all of this.

SADTU will stop at nothing to pillage the entire education system in order to completely capture it, be it by selling teacher positions to their comrades for sex, goats, sheep and cattle or by corrupting the bureaucracy to run education in their interest rather than that of learners. Their assault on our education system is vicious and the scary thing is that they believe they are entitled to all of this.

Trawl through the court roll in the High Court in Grahamstown and you will stumble upon rancorous litigation by the education department against SADTU. Why? To interdict SADTU from disrupting schooling in the province and force them to teach as they are paid to do. Which employer in the world has to go to court to force an employee to do what he is paid to do?

The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) conducted a roundtable on schooling reform in 2011. The following extract appeared from a letter written by a frustrated school principal to the Gauteng MEC. It shows just how SADTU is an octopus with tentacles wrapped around the entire education system, relentlessly sucking blood out of it.

She said: "My second source of frustration is SADTU. SADTU has completely lost the plot. They too frustrate every attempt to innovate, to lengthen contact time, to deal with poor performance or even to make the right appointments. SADTU influences appointments through their cosy relationship with people in the bureaucracy. They block any attempt to address absenteeism, petty theft or other forms of misconduct by a minority of teachers. They constantly call meetings during the school day, and incidents of intimidation are almost a weekly occurrence."

But how does SADTU enjoy such undisturbed peace in their destruction of our education? It does so with the anointing of the ANC as the party of government. Both are part of a tripartite alliance that is the party of government, which incident makes SADTU part of the government as well. Faced with the possibility of losing votes by upsetting a political ally with 250,000 members, the ANC does not hesitate in throwing generations of young South Africans under the bus.

While Gwede, SADTU and co preside over the mess that is our education, their own children enjoy quality instruction at SADTU-free environments where there is more teaching time, more innovation and regular learner assessments.

It is not difficult to understand why ANC politicians have such hardened indifference to the suffering of millions of poor young people who suffocate under the yoke of inferior education. They enjoy school choice – which is denied to millions of poor families in the villages and townships. Gwede Mantashe's son apparently attends university in China after a good and privileged education in South Africa, which you can bet was not at a no-fee government school.

While Gwede, SADTU and co preside over the mess that is our education, their own children enjoy quality instruction at SADTU-free environments where there is more teaching time, more innovation and regular learner assessments. And these unrepentant hypocrites have no sense of proportion in denouncing private schools at every opportunity and bitterly opposing attempts to expand choice of good schools to poor families. Hang in there Western Cape. You are on the right path.

Accomplices in the ransacking

But SADTU and the ANC are not alone in the destruction of our education. They enjoy the warm companionship of accomplices like Equal Education to whom education is an ideological contest regardless of objective facts and evidence on what works or doesn't. Beyond their commendable work on norms and standards, there is little else that justifies their R20 million budget.

Their attitude begins from an ideological quibble: education is a public good and not a commodity. "The State, the State, the State" ... you often hear them say as they wax lyrical on how and what education ought to look like. If it doesn't square with this ideological attitude, it is wrong irrespective of what the evidence on quality outcomes suggests or, most importantly, the choice of the poor families they purport to represent. SADTU, the ANC and their fellow travellers like Equal Education, collectively constitute the Berlin Wall to the systemic reform that is sorely needed to fix our education system.

Last word

As we announced our 2016 matric results last week, all fair-minded South Africans already knew we haven't moved in any meaningful way on quality outcomes. Still more than half of our learners disappear before reaching matric, there is "culling" of learners just to improve matric pass rates so our politicians could pop the champagne, more bachelor passes still come from Q4 and Q5 schools and there is an apparent inflation of passes in order to present a rosier picture. If you dare point these things out, you are unpatriotic and even racist if you happened to be white.

Professor Jansen was as wise as King Solomon when he asked: what if you cannot fix a school? South Africa requires deep and structural reforms in order to fix its education. We need to liberate our education from politics and government monopoly. We need to empower poor families to make informed and meaningful choices about the education of their children just like our politicians do.

Underlying opposition to school choice reforms such as collaboration schools in the Western Cape is a contemptuous belief by the likes of Equal Education, SADTU and the ANC that poor people cannot make intelligent choices for themselves. This is wicked. If they won't trust you with the education of your child, why should you trust them?

That frustrated principal also said in her letter: "I fear for the future of my school, and I fear for the future of my country".

She is not alone.