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South Africa’s culture of mediocrity

South Africa’s primary and secondary education system is breeding a culture of mediocrity and entitlement that will ultimately undermine the growth of the country, both socially and economically. This culture of entitlement is not simply limited to the education system however, but has been surreptitiously reappropriated by our rights-based discourse so that it has become almost impossible to fail at anything. It has become, in other words, a ”learner’s” right to pass, irrespective of whether they deserve or have achieved a standard that the rest of the country or economy would find acceptable. The right to achieve, in short, has long since surpassed the duty to work hard.

One only needs to look at the requirements to ”pass” a subject to immediately begin to feel more than a little worried. Thirty-three and a third percent is considered a pass. Not only that, but it is known as an ”elementary achievement”. Indeed, it is only below this percentage that one can obtain a ”not achieved” mark. What strikes me as even more worrying however is the use of the language which the certificates employ — every single category including and above that of 33.3% is an ”achievement”. Let me restate that. Thirty-three and a third percent is considered an achievement.

I know of no place beyond the education system where anyone would look on 33.3% as an achievement. I cannot imagine any employer accepting work only completed to the level of 33.3% nor any university (which, conversationally, have a pass mark of 50%, something I find equally as problematic). Indeed, I cannot imagine anyone being truly proud of ”achieving” 33.3% — this is not an achievement but a simple and complete failure. It beggars belief to even conceptualise this level of ”achievement” as a success. Translating the percentage into knowledge acquisition, a learner who achieves 33.3% knows only a third of whatever they are supposed to know. Furthermore, the South African National Senior Certificate is not even rated very highly internationally — what a learner has achieved is acquired a third of the knowledge required to pass what is at best a mediocre school certificate. This is, in short, mediocrity compounded by mediocrity.

I must make it clear that this is not necessarily a judgement on the learners themselves — the education system is in a serious crisis and even obtaining textbooks seems to be an achievement now. Obtaining good marks is now a function of where one goes to school as well as what one learns, something which learners have no control over. However, I believe the government is doing these learners an even greater disservice by conceptualising everything they do as an achievement. Learners need good teachers, love, support, textbooks and motivation but they also should be told when they have not achieved their goals. They should be taught that there is nothing wrong with failure, but it is how one deals with that failure that is important. Simply making everyone winners undermines those who have really achieved something while not teaching those who need to do better how to conceptualise and deal with failure. These are life lessons that they will have to encounter for the rest of their lives, so surely they should be given the tools to deal with upsets and disappointments while they are still young? Is that not, in part, the point of going to school?

The problem is, of course, that learners are not taught these skills and they take with them this dearth of knowledge to the workplace. Many South Africans seem to have forgotten that with every right there is a corollary duty, that to have a right is to accept that one must also ensure that one does not infringe on other people’s rights. There is, in short, a culture of entitlement in this country that can be traced back to our inadequate school system. The preponderance of the rights-based discourse has led to a situation where everyone expects to be equal, even in the face of diversity. The consequence can only be serious disappointment.

All of this is written in the shadow of the monumental failure of our education system. It might be interpreted as naïve to expect learners to achieve decent marks when they do not even have a roof over their heads. This is true. But equally, telling people that they have achieved something that is not an achievement is equally as damaging. Failure has become feared when it should be used as an educational tool. How can one expect people to really achieve something special when they have been told that everything they do, regardless of standard or quality, is somehow an achievement?


  • Simon Howell

    Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.