“It is easier to land a man on the moon than to change the school system.”
On the 25th of February, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation held a webinar entitled “Poor education, poor economy – and planning the escape.” The webinar discussed the current challenges our education system faces, students’ weak performance in some institutions compared to others, and the long-term economic effects of a failing education system, against the backdrop of an already-struggling economy and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The webinar focused on Professor Philippe Burger’s study entitled “Poor education, poor economy and planning the escape.” The panellists included Professor Philippe Burger, University of the Free State, Lesedi Masha of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, and Marie Suckers, Member of Parliament, African Christian Democratic Party. This thought-provoking debate highlighted major problems in South Africa which beg the question: Can South Africa overcome its economic woes and a failed education system?
South Africa’s economy
The South African economy already experienced turmoil before the coronavirus outbreak hit in March. Although early national lockdown regulations helped reduce the virus’s spread, they were detrimental to the economy. In its economic survey on South Africa, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that the lockdown significantly reduced economic activity, causing political uncertainties and slow reforms that shrunk growth. From 2013, the economy averaged growth of just under 2% with a decline in GDP per capita. Uncertainty in the country’s politics, due to corruption, has caused low confidence and the judiciary has come into question about whether it will hold those responsible to account. Corruption and mismanagement of finances in government departments and state-owned enterprises, combined with challenges in the economic and fiscal landscapes, have been detrimental to South Africa.
To curb the strain on low-income South Africans, the government maintains high redistributive policies, spending 68% on social objectives (education, health, social grants, and basic services). As a result, between 70-80% of children in low-income households benefit from grants. However, the pandemic severed employment, threatening millions of livelihoods and negatively impacting the government’s redistributive policies. Although the government made efforts to reduce poverty, inequality and corruption remain high, with South Africa’s Gini-coefficient remains among the highest globally. During this pandemic, the severity of epidemic called corruption showed its face. Many continued to loot billions, leaving the poor and learners at a disadvantage by hindering their education.
The Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane raised her concerns on the lack of involvement of principals in the procurement of PPEs in schools. In the Limpopo province, although schools received PPEs, teachers informed Mkhwebane that the PPEs were worn out. Schools have limited classrooms to enforce the lockdown regulations. The public procurement system also has other causes for it being in the spotlight with allegations of corruption. In the Special Investigating Unit’s (SIU) R70 million investigation on corruption, in 2020, it found that politics influenced the procurement of PPEs. As a result, over R13 billion worth of Covid-19 contracts are now under investigation for corruption.
A failed education system
The coronavirus outbreak brought an array of challenges to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), which already experiences embedded systemic failures. According to the Democratic Alliance (DA), the South African school system experienced a 38.4% increase in schools with a 0% pass rate from 2019 to 2020. Although the DBE predicted an improvement in the pass rate trend for 2020, the department was not prepared for unforeseen circumstances like the devastating coronavirus pandemic, which would impact the Class of 2020. However, schools’ and educators’ innovative mechanisms to complete the 2020 curriculum brought a 1.7% decrease in schools with a pass rate below 40%.
The DBE focused on the matrics of 2020, highlighting that 76.2% of learners who wrote the National Senior Certificate (NSC) exam passed, with 210 820 of them obtaining admission to bachelor studies. Notably, the DBE suggests that the matric pass rate over the past decade averaged 70%. However, in 2020, the pass rate of full-time candidates (578 468) that sat for the NSC exam declined by 5.1 percentage points from 81.3% in 2019. Provinces with significant rural districts had a greater decline in performance. The DBE ascribes this to the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting that rural school districts have constrained abilities to reorganise and regain lost learning time due to 2020 school closures, learner absenteeism, teachers’ ill-health, and limited access to resources.
The DA highlights that the DBE continuously fails learners at 0% pass rate schools. Many of these schools have poor infrastructure and are unsafe for learning. Apart from a lack of skilled teachers, some of these schools do not have basic infrastructure like running water, electricity, or sanitation, let alone the ability to accommodate the challenges brought by the pandemic. The abovementioned study conducted by Professor Philippe Burger of the University of the Free State highlights the DBE’s publication on annual infrastructure, the National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) Standard Report. It shows that since August 2020, out of the 23 267 public schools in South Africa, 5771 schools (24.8%) still had pit toilets, while 3164 (13.6%) used only pit toilets. Apart from being less hygienic, pit toilets are dangerous for children. How does this provide dignity to the learners and staff, let alone capacitate the schools to improve their pass rates?
Can South Africa overcome this situation?
Essentially, breaking down systemic barriers to learning and development opportunities should be at the forefront of social development in South Africa. Over the past decade, learners’ poor performance is linked to poor quality teaching of core subjects, particularly in rural districts and township schools. In addition, the socio-economic background of learners portrays barriers to their learning and development. In escaping these systemic failures, the government should address education, development, socio-economic, and health barriers to ensure sustainable development. The DBE implemented an innovative learning opportunity called the ICTEd project (ICT in Education) in 200 schools in Kwa Zulu Natal. The project aims to address poor quality teaching and learning in the classroom, replacing teacher-centred instruction with learner-centred technology-based learning.
Although the DBE is implementing this project, it is a small step in the right direction. There is still much to be done about these learners’ socio-economic backgrounds. As a response, the ANC government put-in-place affirmative action using BEE to solve these systemic failures inherited from the previous government. However, some of these systemic failures still exist. On the other hand, the Department of Social Development implemented social protection services to help vulnerable individuals, households, and communities. These efforts include social grants and basic services to ensure a reduction in poverty and inequality. Although grants keep many from starvation, our economy is too weak to keep up with the demand.
Meanwhile, community-based organisations also bring into play innovative opportunities, for example: Harambee, a non-profit social enterprise that aims to reduce global youth unemployment by partnering with government, businesses, and youth. Another example being Knit2Code, which is a scheme used to widen access to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It focuses mainly on the previously disadvantaged black community. The scheme combines knitting with coding to ensure learning and development, reinforcing connections between generations of women and children. It is an innovation that merges skills and technology to uplift disadvantaged South Africans.
Essentially, the government should promote efforts to empower the emerging economically active population to bolster the economy rather than create dependents.
Acemoglu, D., Gelb, S. and Robinson, J. 2007. Black Economic Empowerment performance in South Africa. pp. 11-12.
Baloyi, P. 2020. Mkhwebane denounces PPE’s procurement system for Limpopo schools. SABC News. https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/mkhwebane-denounces-ppes-procurement-system-for-limpopo-schools/. Accessed: 02.03.2021.
Burger, P. 2021. Poor education, poor economy and planning the escape. The Midpoint – Paper Series, no. 1, pp. 12.
Democratic Alliance. 2021. 38% increase in schools with 0% pass rate shows systematic failures of DBE. https://www.da.org.za/2021/02/38-increase-in-schools-with-0-pass-rate-shows-systemic-failures-of-dbe. Accessed: 01.03.2021.
Good Reads. 2021. School system quotes. It is easier to land a man on the moon than to change the school system: M.Z. Riffi. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/ tag/school-system. Accessed: 01.03.2021.
Harambee. 2019. Solving youth unemployment through partnerships. https://www. harambee.co.za/breaking-barriers-november-2020/. Accessed: 03.03.2021.
Matlali, L. 2021. Stitching up racism: how knitting is helping break down barriers in South African tech. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/ 01/knitting-stem-tech-coding-south-africa/. Accessed: 03.03.2021.
Matya, L. 2021. SIU spent R70 million investigating PPE corruption. SABC News. https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/siu-spent-r70-million-investigating-ppe-corruption/. Accessed: 02.03.2021.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 2020. OECD economic surveys: South Africa. pp. 10-11.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. [n.d.]. South Africa: Transformation of classroom practice through use of ICT and child-centred teaching and learning. Directorate for Education and Skills Innovative Learning Environments. pp. 1-6.
South Africa (Republic). Department: Basic Education. 2021 NSC Examinations. https://www.education.gov.za/2021NSCExamReports.aspx. Accessed: 01.03.2021.
South Africa (Republic). Department: Social Development. 2021. Social development. https://www.gov.za/about-sa/social-development#. Accessed: 03.03.2021.