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Revolutionary clichés are intended to mask failures in policy execution

Watching Fikile Mbalula announce the introduction of a ‘’revolutionary electoral council’’ at the ANC press conference and state that “we simply dusted it from the cupboard and have given it new perfume” left me completely stunned. What stunned me is not the novelty of the subject but the fact that he restricted himself to the electoral college. What he said was in fact true of all the “new’’ policy proposals. The ANC has become expert in spraying new perfume on old and recycled proposals.


The passion and frenzy behind the call for radical economic transformation is intellectually profound and politically baffling because we have been fed with this rhetoric consistently in the last five years and yet, there is nothing dramatic and transformative to show for it. The president has called for it; the ANC and its subsidiary agencies have adopted it as a statement of hope and an instrument for denigration against the ‘’white monopoly capital’’; opposition leaders have adopted it with confounding interest; and church leaders have also supported it. But what does it really mean for us as citizens?


I have chosen to focus on the provision of quality education because it is commonly accepted that it is a foundational pillar for radical economic transformation and growth. It is also accepted as the most reliable tool for upward social mobility in the context of our high structural inequality and unemployment. This is a very narrow focus but it is an excellent example of the broad spectacular policy failures that have contributed significantly to the wider economic malaise that continues to confront us.


To a very large degree, our goal and mission of attaining social justice, transformation and the country’s economic development depends on how the education system functions. The extent to which children from disadvantaged communities have a real opportunity to achieve educational outcomes that will enable them to be successful in the labour market defines whether the school system can be expected to transform existing patterns of structural inequality or merely reproduce them.


The reality we must accept is that our education system has consistently delivered poor outcomes despite the disproportionately high investment made through the budget allocation.


That this situation is untenable is not disputed. The minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, feels that “we have not reached the quality learning outcomes we are striving for”. The constraints identified in the above study provide a solid basis for a well-structured and aggressive five year action programme aimed at systematically undoing these constraints and radically transforming our education system. The essence of successful strategy implementation is to remove all the constraints that impede its successful execution.


It is generally agreed among the leading education researchers that the biggest errors that governments make is to blindly push for more and better everything at all levels of education: more teachers, flashier facilities, more and better technology in the classroom and more elite universities. All such efforts may seem sensible but studies by researchers at Munich’s IFO Institute and Stanford among others show that simply spending more money on education does not necessarily yield better results.


A recent research project titled “Low Quality Education as a Poverty Trap” led by Prof Servaas van der Berg and Dr Ronelle Burger has shed new light on the relationship between the quality of education and labour market outcomes in the country. It confirms that better quality education provides a better chance to exploit higher-level market opportunities and the benefits that go with it. But in essence, the study also reinforces a common and intuitive perception that children from poor communities frequently attend schools that are poorly resourced and managed and consequently, at an early age, there are already stark distinctions between the prospects of children from these communities and those from the more affluent communities.


The poor education outcomes that have come to define our education system sadly reflect the depth of poverty and inequality in our country.


Professor Jonathan Jansen’s public advice to the president at the beginning of his term of office was blunt: “My advice is to devote significant budgetary resources to building a strong pre-school education for all children. This is where the gap opens and is never closed. The gap between the children of the middle classes who attend high quality pre-schools and the children of the poor who, for the most part, are warehoused in non-educational environments until their tired parents come home from work.”


Research has demonstrated that investing in preschool education especially for disadvantaged kids will result in better returns for society in the long term. This is the conclusion reached by a coalition of scientists, economists and experts who argue that the best way to strengthen a society and increase development is to improve health, education and other services for its youngest citizens.


The irony of our resource allocation and accessibility in education is that less than 35% of the learners in early childhood education receive state support and these are from the affluent communities. On the contrary, the poor rely on their own resources to maintain the “Gogo” early childhood warehouses that are run mainly by women.


What then are the key weaknesses in our education process and what must be done to achieve the outcomes that we so desperately need in the next five years?


This column does not allow sufficient space to comprehensively explore all the key weaknesses that hinder/obstruct attainment of quality education for all. However, for an in-depth analysis read “Identifying Binding Constraints in Education’’ by Servaas van der Berg et al. This report is available online at My proposal is that this comprehensive research report should be adopted as a framework and strategy document for reversing the current weaknesses and providing a solid foundation for the radical transformation of our education system.


There is no silver bullet that can bring the desired radical transformation in our education system. But what is patently clear is that ultimately what will work requires a systematic implementation of the key drivers identified in the above study that most researchers agree will deliver the impact we all desire over time. The challenge we have always faced is not due to lack of progressive policies. What has consistently impeded progress is corrupt patronage politics and the regressive cadre deployment practices at all levels of government.


The question that we must honestly confront is whether the DBE has sufficient visionary leadership, competencies and capacity to embark on such a radically transformative task? Their performance to-date shows that they cannot be trusted with such a complex task. A new oversight structure that brings in respected education professional and academics is required to guide this new and dramatic approach. What organizational form it should take must be the product of a comprehensive engagement involving government, the NGO’s and civil society.