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Teaching to transgress

By Athambile Masola

The public education system is failing in South Africa. This is nothing new. As the year comes to an end we will soon be bombarded with the matric results that will confirm the consequences of an unequal education system. We will all lament, shake our heads in despair, point fingers at the government for not taking education reform seriously and move on with our lives (unless one is a teacher or parent with a child in the system).

When we consider our public education system, it’s a mixed bag of complexities where the past of colonialism, apartheid and the failures of curriculum reform since the 1990s have collided causing an eruption of chaos in many schools. But we need to overcome this legacy. Everyone who has vested interests in the education system will posit what the solutions should be, ranging from “back to basics” pedagogy and the jettison of the outcomes based education curriculum. Others might suggest we ban teacher strikes and others, such as the ANCYL, will simply suggest a free and equal education system. The list of solutions is endless. I can never help but wonder, how many will consider the personal decision of becoming a teacher?

Part of the reason for the failures in our education system is the teachers. This is not to damn all teachers in the system, but we have a significantly high amount of poorly educated teachers and unpicking the complexities of professional development is not something the government has taken seriously. Until this is done, any reform will be like putting a plaster on a wound that needs stitches or serious surgery.

Getting new teachers into the system is not the sole responsibility of government and tertiary institutions or NGOs. It is every South African’s problem. This need not be a case of conscription or even patriotism, but where young graduates consider teaching as a profession for a few years. By virtue of their quality education, young graduates will not be limited and can leave the teaching profession and move on into the careers of their choice knowing that they have been part of the solution of changing the face of education in this country. This is not a question of “giving back” to the country in service, but rather paying forward and adding value to a system that is in serious need of reform.

Granted, teaching has been viewed as the noble profession people should not consider lightly. It ought to be “a calling” and not a result of necessity but rather a real passion for the learners and the project of developing young people. But we’re reaching a crises point where the number of teachers currently being produced does not match what is needed in schools. Every individual knows the importance of education whether or not they received a good education. What it takes for changing the profession is us, every South African who has the opportunity to create options for themselves and others by becoming a teacher.

What if we had more educators who truly believed that a poor education for working class children was unacceptable and demanded an equal education and better working conditions rather than better pay? What if we had communities who supported their schools and teachers and believed that it takes a village (community) to raise a child?

I have watched and even assisted friends apply to teach in Korea and China with the simple reason “it’s a better package”. This is true and a fair assessment when considering the perks for teaching in other countries, but I wonder how many of them will consider teaching when they return from their adventures abroad? We need good teachers to stay in the system and we need more educated young people to join the fraught system so we can change it from within rather than lament at more newspaper reports, shake our heads and simply move on with our lives.

In spite of the doom and gloom in the system, there are glimmers of hope that are created in classrooms with teachers who attempt to transgress the limitations. The simple and taken-for-granted process of watching someone develop and persevere is something we should consider being part of. This seems very simplistic given the bureaucratisation of the teaching profession. Perhaps that’s where the conversation should begin, how can we make it possible for more people to consider the teaching profession in spite of the challenges?

Athambile Masola is doing a master’s in education and will be a teacher in 2012. The title of this piece is borrowed from a book by bell hooks.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Philip Cole Philip Cole 1 November 2011

    Thanks, Athambile, for a good article which identifies many of the problems in the South African education system. I agree that teaching needs a far higher professional status and needs to be seen as a calling rather than just another job.

    When you argue that “we have a significantly high amount of poorly educated teachers” you go to the heart of the problem. The Bantu education system was created to poorly educate black people as a matter of policy. Most of our teachers in poor black communities have gone through this system and are therefore themselves poorly equipped to teacher.

    You also ask what would happen “if we had more educators who truly believed that a poor education for working class children was unacceptable and demanded an equal education and better working conditions rather than better pay?”

    Which brings us to the elephant in the room: SADTU – a trade union which started with noble ideals but which has become the single greatest barrier to improving the quality of black working class education in South Africa.

    Nothing significant happens in education management and development without SADTU’s agreement. Provincial education departments are unable to manage and discipline teachers due to their influence, with the result that many schools in poor black communities are underperforming because teachers cannot be bothered.

    Bringing SADTU back under political control is a precondition to improving educational performance in South Africa.

  2. Dork Dork 1 November 2011

    psst…sub eds…”bell hooks” is so transgressive that she refuses to uses to cap the first letters of her name.

  3. Lockstock Lockstock 1 November 2011

    Wall Street bankers could take a lesson or two in sheer unadulterated greed by attending a South African Teachers Union meeting. These pampered, irresponsible welts want more to do less. Continually. The demands are always the same. Over the years they have removed their collective responsibility as professional teachers (I use that description rather guardedly) from the classroom. The result has been poor attendance, 3rd rate teaching, break-downs of school financing, and complete mayhem in the schools.

    Students are now learners…..that don’t learn. Teachers have retained their ‘professional’ mantle but don’t (or can’t) teach in The NuSA. You have gone past the point of blaming Apartheid, white folk, inequality and just about every concocted excuse in the book for this deplorable situation. The ONLY thing that needs to happen is for teachers to be held accountable. Nothing else.

    And good luck with that in the New (yet hopelessly unimproved) South Africa under ANC ‘leadership’.

  4. Judith Judith 1 November 2011

    We need to care about teaching and actually do it again. We have to find great and passionate teachers and we already have them. We have to use them to spread the passion. I am happy to teach teachers to teach English and History as a retired person

  5. Loudly Safrican Loudly Safrican 2 November 2011

    Any analysis of SA’s education crisis must begin with the ANC’s irresponsible “burn don’t learn” education before liberation tactics (contrasted with the Afrikaner poor white “liberation through eduction” strategy) used for The Struggle – while ensuing their own offspring had world-best education. This tactic, combined with a “pass one pass all” entitlement mindset (leading to an all fail outcome) and ideological tinkering with education (outcomes-based education; scrapping technical training; merging universities & reducing their independence and diversity and retrenching teachers for being white) lead to a black education nightmare not even Dr Verwoerd would dream of. Ironically, this Racial-Socialist government (with its Communist component) has lead to the privatisation of education for the haves and an growing number of school & tertiary leavers who may never work in their lives.

    Their dependency on a state ruled by the vanguard, suits the elite as this infantalisation produces “rent-seeking” votes for the Tripartheid Alliance and docile workers who need Big Unions to look after their interests), returning the kleptocrats in election after election to continue looting the state. It also produces parents who don’t teach their children a study or work ethic.

    Ironically, if one reads the stories of some of the individuals taking part in the “Occupy Wall Street” demos and its derivatives, many are highly educated and could be recruited by SA as…

  6. Dave Harris Dave Harris 2 November 2011

    Ever since our liberation in 1994, its our government that’s saddled with the herculean task of turning around a Christian Nationalist Education system designed centuries ago to propagate white supremacy and western values. For centuries, our education system served a mere 10% of the white population using over 90% of the resources. The challenge is, how to build a more egalitarian education system for our majority who have been indoctrinated for generations into being ashamed of their own African culture. Remember even in the early 90s, when the writing was on the wall for the apartheid government, they still stubbornly refused to truly integrate schools! The majority of privileged whites resisted integration to the bitter end and still engage in all kinds of games to keep their schools in the white majority. White economic privilege, land ownership, language, tertiary education … all served to propagate white privilege at the expense of real transformation of our education system. Our previously privileged still fear sending their kids to schools where they will be in the minority. They have largely opted out of the public system whenever they could not game the system to remain in the majority, preferring to send their kids to private schools, owned and controlled by the white minority, unaffordable to the majority of blacks. …

  7. Dave Harris Dave Harris 2 November 2011

    …An education system cannot be easily overhauled over a generation. Powerful teachers unions want to maintain the status quo. Also, being only human, most parents are afraid of change, especially when it comes to their precious kids – and who can blame them? The privileged also want to maintain a system that serves them well. Politicians lack the courage to act decisively and simply continue to toe the party line. Education reform is impossible without strong, visionary leadership. Unfortunately our Ministry of Education still lack that strong leadership and vision required to integrate and innovate our schooling system which is still hobbled by the old Christian Nationalist Education system so prevalent in Africa and many other countries still overcoming their colonial past.

  8. peter peter 2 November 2011

    The one thing that our government does take seriously is exploitation of the uneducated because it suits them well. Their “calling” is to maintain control over their servants (us), so it is in their own interests to not be too concerned about the education of the masses. Self education is the way to go. Amen.

  9. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 2 November 2011

    Education should have no colour. Teachers who know how to teach were forced out of the system. Terachers who could teach teachers to teach we also discarded in the name of “Transformation” Transformation has been a resounding success as the teachers who know what they were doing have been replaced with those who do not know what they are doing but are of the correct ‘colour’ or connections.
    What good there was has been ‘transformed’ as is the case with so many other areas of our economy. Doctors, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs have all been told that they are no longer needed as they were the wrong ‘colour’. Teachers need to be taught from Grade 0 so we cannot simply now wave Zuma’s magic wand and create them as it will take at least 14 years to rebuild what has been ‘transformed’.
    Uneducated voters vote for the best promises and with their hearts, not their minds so the best thing for the ANC is to continue with bad education as this will ensure their survival. SADTU and most trade unions are a curse that South Africa can no longer live with and labour laws need to “employment friendly”. Hiring a future incompetant, striker, trasher and intimidator is not what any employer wants so the result is the mess that we have. Setting the pass levels so low gives better pass results but an idiot with a matric certificate is still an idiot and cannot earn his/her keep. We need people who can produce but the ANC gives incapable people jobs??

  10. Sipho Sipho 2 November 2011

    Me thinks that not every university is equipped to train good teachers. Just like medical schools we need institutions that are well equipped and dedicated to produce great teachers. The fact that every university has a teacher training faculty perpetuates the production of poorly trained teachers. Most teachers who were either well or poorly trained in the old government system are nearing retirement, one would expect the new crop of teachers in black schools to be much better but they are not. It seems black schools are a dumping ground for poorly trained teachers who can’t get teaching jobs elsewhere.

  11. MLH MLH 2 November 2011

    Education has accepted young graduates for hundreds of years. No offence, but this is where it has got us! It is those with a vocation that are needed.
    ‘Great South African Teachers’, compiled at the University of the Free State by Professor Jonathon Jansen and two of his journalism students , makes one thing abundantly clear. Wonderful teachers of all colours and creeds have peopled this country for the last hundred years (and doubtless many more). Most of their pupils who contributed to the book have done extraordinary well, built solid and sometimes startlingly successful careers. Those writers were probably only one in 30 of any single class; a teacher interacts with many over his career. Many were hampered by the disadvantages of the apartheid era. That didn’t hold them or their teachers back.
    We all have to want the indefinable ‘it’ badly enough to provoke the right response. No one can do it for us. The biggest benefit of a private school education in this country is still the assumption that the scholar can only succeed if his goals are huge. The fact of bantu education becomes apparent: it really doesn’t much matter what anyone learns within the classroom. As long as he learns and remains curious, curiosity will spur him on to learn on his own.
    In fact, no teacher really needs to know much more than the content he teaches: a Grade 5 teacher must be knowledgeable about Grade 6 and perhaps Grade 7 work, to stretch the minds of his pupils. Is that too much to ask?

  12. Catherine Catherine 2 November 2011

    If a useful NGO (contradiction in terms?) could consolidate the efforts of retired teachers and dynamic young graduates, pay them with social responsibility funding from corporates who state Education as one of their beneficiaries, and select just one school close to an urban area from which the “helpers” will be sought, wonders could be created.

    This system would by-pass SADTU and governmental politics (if the NGO is properly chosen), and all the stakeholders – be it graduates or older teachers, or students, or schools – would reap the joys of development. If Mother Theresa remained paralysed by the politics of authorities, she would have got nowhere. Who has the courage to start?

  13. mark mark 2 November 2011

    English has become the international common language that allows people to interact on a global scale. But a German student isnt educated in English. These students are ecucated in their home language and then pick up English allowing them to take part in the global economy.

    So why is South Africa any different. We have 11 offical languages and generally we force these children to learn in English. When you communicate in Zulu at home all day, learning in Enlish isnt going to help you. What you get is a child who barely understands english, translating back and forth between english and zulu in his mind to do the schoolwork.

    A Zulu child should be educated in Zulu (Maths, science, history etc) and then be tought english as a first/second language. This will allow him to convey what he/she has learned efficiently.

    I am not proposing segregation but unrolling ex white model c education models in all the official languages. So what we need to do is start producing highly skilled teachers who can teach in these languages. A Maths class being given in zulu isnt rascist, its pretty logical in my mind.

  14. X Cepting X Cepting 2 November 2011

    Have you spoken to older teachers and asked why they are leaving “the calling”?  I know a few, some who are still hanging in there and trying to teach in spite of what they have to endure from education department, children and parents. There is no complexities here, only a refusal to see the facts of where it all went wrong. – OBE – Honestly, has it shown any results anywhere else in the world except maybe in isolated affluent communities where the parents can afford to be as involved as the teachers?

  15. X Cepting X Cepting 2 November 2011

    – The Child Justice Act – Can you seriously blame teachers who no longer feel up to the task of teaching children under the “protection” of this misguided law?  In effect, it has put children above the law and teachers no longer have any protection from the children they are meant to teach.  Please don’t scorn until you speak to the headmasters in certain areas, that have become quite used to seeing blood spatters in classrooms and having their life’s threatened by primary school children who have no respect for any authority. – Teacher Training – I remember when teachers were those people with a 3 year degree in their fields and an additional year (HEd) in Education studies to become teachers.  Reducing “training” time to 1-2 years does not attract good teachers, it attracts people who wish to earn a fast buck for little work and will likely go on strike for any reason.  The teachers that taught me would have considered striking illegal and beneath their dignity and ability to personally address grievances. – Lowering the pass rate – No, it does not increase the amount of educated individuals, quite the opposite in fact since students who would have worked harder, learned more, now do not see the point when they can coast past matric, only to discover they cannot cope at university.

  16. X Cepting X Cepting 2 November 2011

    – Spending lots of money on expensive equipment and projects – All a good teacher need is a blackboard, chalk, exercise books and 2nd hand text books, the rest is pure distraction and a waste of money and teaching time.  It is time for the Education Department to get honest with themself.  Instead of everyone equally enjoying the same excellent education, which was the norm for the “previously advantaged” kid, they have made “bantu education” the norm.  The parents who refuse their kids to be subjected to this and pay excorbitant fees for good education are blamed for creating unequal education.  Good grief!

    If you wish to level the playing field, level it up.  Kids clever enough to realise the criminal potential in the Child Justice Act will cope once their right to crime and disrespect of authority is revoked.

  17. X Cepting X Cepting 2 November 2011

    @Harris – Gasp! You are criticising the ANC? Bru, you risk losing your gravy train ticket that way.

  18. Nicholas Nicholas 2 November 2011

    Schoolteaching is not only a thankless task it is also one that will disappear completely within the next generation. This is partly because choosing the career is fundamentally a financially suicidal decision, but it is also because the job can be done better by real machines rather than the human bureaucrats demanded by the new education system.

    In future people will sign on with their “IPAds” perform a series of tasks and learn things, and then log off at a designated time for social integration purposes. Those who fail to keep up with the machine driven programme will be “failed” [officially adjudged “not competent”] and sent back to redo stuff.

    The management of the human interaction segment of the day can be handled by low level operatives that cost the system far less than the present overpaid underperforming idiots like me who struggle daily to be heard in classrooms; over the clamour of freedom and the general disinterest of an incredulous working class.

    Through this revision in our system, the liberation before education ethic that is alive and well in our system will serve the less useful well and those with some aptitude will cease to be hampered in their search for excellence.

    Frankly if any one of my children announced that they wanted to follow in their parent’s footsteps and take up this occupation, i would send them off to rehab, for psychiatric re evaluation… or recommend arsenic as a quicker solution for their obvious desire to…

  19. John Patson John Patson 3 November 2011

    Part of the problem is that you now need a Masters degree to be a first year teacher in primary school.
    Just because you can pass exams and research a short dissertation, does not mean you know, or are prepared, for the hard daily grind of being a teacher.
    Five years of university education also leaves most people with a wish for a salary higher than they will get at the chalk face.
    And when the young MAs arrive shiny faced in school in 2012, they will work with fellow teachers, “parachuted” in 10-15 years ago when all the white teachers without degrees were kicked out, who struggled to meet expectations then, and who have now reached a cynical mid-career where confrontation through the union and the long holidays are the reason for being.

  20. Chris Roux Chris Roux 3 November 2011

    Interesting how the core issue of reverse discrimination in the education system in the name of transformation is always avoided or obfuscated in these “situational assessments.”

    Can someone please enlighten us on exactly how many qualified teachers were “released” under the ANC administration in order to get the correct demographic representation in place – without any serious consideration of the impact on education standards.

    Why is it that I met scores of coloured, Indian and white South African teachers abroad who yearn to return to their country of birth (based on dedication and true commitment) to continue teaching, but have resigned themselves to the reality that they will never be employed here? And so with Doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, engineers and managers. We also need to avoid the spurious response that they are there for better money!

    These academic analysis of the state of affairs in South Africa should all commence with the statement “since the transformation process with its affirmative action priorities, it has been found that . . . . . .”

    Then none of us have to speculate about aetiology or respond with anything other than productive recommendations.

    I agree with Tutu, but for different reasons, we need to pray for the downfall of the incumbent government and its kleptocrats.

  21. athambile athambile 4 November 2011

    i’m dumbfounded!one does not need a masters to be a primary school teacher…i just opted for this route because of the options i had.the point is we need teachers in the system,end of story.we can’t undo the travesty of the retrenchments,we need to find another solution.and we can’t undo the damage of sadtu if new teachers who can find other options other than sadtu are not coming forward.granted,technology will replace teachers one day as is the case in some first world countries,but we need a good education before we can even get to that point…

  22. Nicholas Nicholas 5 November 2011


    I’m glad you acknowledge that technology will replace teachers… however you are deluding yourself about the “one day” part of your hypothesis and prevaricating even more so more so with the “good education” bit before we can get to “that point”.

    There are successfull educational instiutions even here in Jozi that use machines to do all the teaching… and they provide an outstanding service.

    I notice in my own school [private and 99.9% black Mr Dave Harris] which has a proliferation of boisterously unenthusiastic learners who behave as Shakespeare predicted ‘creeping unwillingly” to class, and happily to play… that when i walk past the “IT” section and the door happens to be open that those same wild young clamourous kids are seated like code mode church mice following the instructions on their screens.

    After reading your response yesterday i did a brief [and inherently unscientific survey] amongst all the really naughty non-learners in my classrooms regarding this observation and they said that the machines were part of their normal life {i routinely ask 8th or 9th graders what i should be doing when stuck on something with my laptop or cellphone and even my digital camera]

    To them as they observed… being with the machines was ‘work’ time. Being in other classes was ‘weird’ time… ‘bor…ring’.

    These are the freeborns… and that means they are just that: Free. There parents may struggle with the fees and they come to…

  23. Nicholas Nicholas 5 November 2011

    Yes they may, many of them, come to school in taxis nonetheless when asked by me to google something i’ve said that they don’t want to believe out come the latest blackberries, IPhone touch screen Nokia touch screens, galaxies, HT whatever… et al and i will be regaled with a flowing web of data from even the most seemingly apathetic…

    After giving your waiting for “Good education” point more thought, i can’t help feeling that the kids are getting a ‘good’ education without our help and that it could be that all this obsession with a 19th century ‘schoolroom’, model protecting self serving vested interests is retarding their development.

  24. suntosh suntosh 7 November 2011

    Athambile – I applaud you for becoming a teacher, and for being conscientized to these issues, which alone is step forward in the right direction.

    Now we need organized collective action to liberate our education system!

  25. athambile athambile 10 November 2011

    @nicholas…granted,you speak from experience and i should add my experience,being in the eastern cape (on par with provinces like limpopo and kzn to some extent),we still have a long way to go.we’re still struggling with the basics such as toilet infrastructure and mud schools,so IT sections are still a myth in many schools.i don’t deny your experience in jhb,but i reckon yours is a different context.i couldn’t agree more,a good education is coupled with technology,in fact it’s fundamental,it’s just taking longer in other contexts.
    @suntosh,thanks…we’ll see what happens in january when schools open!

  26. Nicholas Nicholas 11 November 2011

    MIne isn’t a different context at all.

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