Mosibudi Mangena

In a recent article, Benny Boshielo, a teacher-turned-politician, takes umbrage at the invasion of schools on the first day of every academic year by politicians of every stripe. The education professionals are pushed to the sidelines as people who know almost nothing about teaching take centre stage. Political office bearers, from the Presidency down to the ward councilor find their way to one school or the other, where, with the media in tow, they would make one pronouncement or another.

Boshielo is right on the button. This phenomenon adds very little value to the learning process. The politicians go to schools on the first day of schooling and then disappear for the entire year, making another appearance the following year. The teaching professionals can only come to their own once the politicians and the cameras go away.
This spectacle is an eloquent admission of the fact that the education system in our country is broken. There should be no need in a functioning system for non-education people to invade schools on the first day, ostensibly to ensure that teaching takes place on the first day of the school year.

To be honest and frank, education is one of the biggest failures of a democratic South Africa. That failure wastes legions of our young people and robs the economy of the skills that would otherwise be produced. Indirectly, that failure might be responsible for the high crime rate. How do we expect the young we fail to educate to make a living?

If you go to our neighbours in Zimbabwe and Botswana, you will not find this dance on the opening day of schools. There is also no song and dance on the occasion of the announcement of the results of their O and A-Levels. They have put in place systems that work. Even in our own country, this phenomenon is a recent development. It was not like this when my generation traversed the education road.

These practices of organizing big occasions to announce the matriculation results and the visits to schools on the first day of the academic year were started after the advent of democracy in an attempt to cure the education system of the maladies brought about by the massive involvement of students in the liberation struggle. Both parents and teachers had lost control of the young and as a result, the school system was characterized by chaos, ill-discipline and dysfunction.

This is the price we paid for having our young leading the struggle for freedom. In fact, we have not completely recovered from that legacy. The hang-over still lingers. Unfortunately, because of that history, and the fact that school children are easy to mobilize, some adults resort to the use of school children whenever they have a quarrel with the authorities.

Instead of indulging in this annual razzmatazz during the matriculation results announcements and the opening of schools, we should be knuckling down to the task of building systems that work. That would ensure that schools start properly as a matter of course, without drama. The system should be run by professionals, who naturally would be accountable to the parents and the department of education.

Among other things, we might have to strengthen the district offices sufficiently. The district officials, who are educational professionals, should ensure that schools open on time, that they have desks and learning materials and that these are delivered on time.

The district managers should ensure that the physical state of the schools under their jurisdiction is acceptable and assess the quality of work done in their classrooms. Presently, the South African classroom is a mystery. Neither the principal, the district manager, the superintendent, the MEC, the Minister of Education, nor the President can tell you what is going on in the South African classroom.

We should consider the fixing of our education system a matter of national priority. We are all agreed that education is a potent weapon with which we can effectively tackle rampant poverty, unemployment and inequality. Attempts to fight these potential fatal illnesses of our society without solving the education problem would fare just as well as attempts to remove your wheel nuts with cotton wool.

One of the consequences of a continued feeble public education system might be the steady growth of private education from kindergarten right up to university in South Africa. To those of us who are proponents of public education, such a prospect is a bane that keeps us awake at night.

Public education makes it possible for children of peasants, workers, the intelligentsia and the middle classes to interact and learn together. It reduces social distance among the different social classes, fosters solidarity and understanding at the same time as it keeps the costs of education affordable for all. An ailing public education system forces parents, even struggling ones, to dig deep into their pockets to send their offspring to private schools.

It is therefore in our national interest to fix our education system, not through razzmatazz once a year, but through a robust system that works as a matter of course.

Mosibudi Mangena

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