Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Apartheid nostalgia, education and agency

By Athambile Masola

The media coverage about the shambolic state of education in South Africa (with a recent focus on the Eastern Cape) is disturbing. The views vacillate between inspiring hope for change and declaring doom over the future of the thousands of young people whose right to basic education is being flouted in the majority of poor schools and who will emerge from their classrooms with a substandard education.

The most disturbing views have been from respected public intellectuals such as Professor Jonathan Jansen and Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Both have drawn parallels between the apartheid education system as well as the current education system. Dr Ramphele was harangued when she made the statement about the current education system being worse than the apartheid system. Recently, Professor Jansen declared that the implications of the current system of education will make the 1976 uprising look like a picnic when young people become “gatvol” with the lack of quality education. These views are valid given the statistics and stories about education (those in the media and those which remain untold). The reference to apartheid in relation to the education system draws my attention to democracy and what it means for education.

Apartheid education successfully oppressed and placed limitations on black people for generations. Education in a democratic dispensation was meant to do the opposite: it was meant to liberate South Africans through access to quality education. This is not happening. As it was during apartheid, chaos still reigns in many schools where teaching and learning do not happen, thus jeopardising the development of children and communities. Our current education system further entrenches the grave social inequalities we see in South Africa where those with money and social capital can enroll their children in privileged schools.

However, as someone of the born-free generation who has chosen the teaching profession, I am filled with dread when I contemplate what education means in our not-so-new-democracy. Without a functioning education system for the majority of the people in this country, it seems that democracy is undermined. If the current system is worse than apartheid and we are doomed to repeat the 1976 uprising, what does this suggest about the possibility for change for a generation of people with the promises of democracy ensured to us? The agency of young people who are black, poor and receiving a poor education is being undermined because the only recourse available, according to Professor Jansen, is revolt and mayhem instead of creating other opportunities for themselves as citizens of a democracy.

If we accept this, then democracy is only meaningful for those who are privileged, educated and the lucky few who make it through a poor education in spite of the poor education they have received. This is the minority of the population. We need to shift the conversation about education where young people are constantly victims of the vagaries of the government’s failure to improve education. How do young people confront the obvious challenges without being overwhelmed by a future of destruction?

There has been little focus on young people and their perceptions of the role they can play in rectifying the mistakes of the past. Where it has happened, many of my peers are content with climbing the corporate ladder, but for the majority, this option is not available. One of the principles we take for granted in our democracy is the extent of civic involvement and what this really means for education and the future of this country. Young people are afraid of being seen as activists, but this seems to be one of the available solutions.

The idea of young people who lack agency while waiting for “Mr President” to solve their problems (as is the case in the Eastern Cape) is not sustainable for the future of this country. Activism need not simply be about making a noise, but it is the principle of “making the circle bigger” by using the resources available to create the opportunity for change.

I recognise that the option of being an activist is mostly available for people who have resources and social capital, but volunteering in a school requires time. Reading to a primary school learner simply requires time and the ability to read; mentoring a high school learner requires time and knowledge, but the point is that this is achievable and not mutually exclusive with the reformation that is needed in order for bigger change.

Athambile Masola is a teacher at a high school in Cape Town.

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