File picture: African News Agency (ANA) – Learners at Alexandra High School look through a broken window. The school came under a spotlight recently when learners went on rampage and destroyed school furniture after the school principal refused them permission to celebrate spring day.
by Edwin Naidu
If there were any remaining heirs of William Shakespeare, they would have probably been massively wealthy, living off royalties paid every time someone used words made famous by the man they dubbed the Bard – a professional storyteller.
Something is rotten in the state of South Africa. It is a play on Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. But there are no direct descendants of the man considered one of the world’s greatest playwrights. So, one can freely pick on words that resonate more than 400 years after his death. The line that something is wrong in the state of Denmark is associated with corruption or wrongdoing. But this week’s look at challenges in education focused not on the easy corruption cancer that afflicts our nation.
However, amid the gloom, the news of another feather in the cap for the University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng should serve as hope for every rural and urban school child in South Africa. Phakeng, who schooled at Marapyane village and then Ikageng Primary in Ga-Rankuwa is the inaugural winner of the Africa Education Medal for her work in education.
The inspiring story of the township pupil conquering Africa looks set to crown a major education week which began on Thursday when the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, delivered a speech at the G20 Education Ministers’ Meeting in Indonesia.
In proud moments like this, where Nzimande said that South Africa fully endorses and reaffirms the commitment to achieve a more resilient, equitable, inclusive, peaceful, and sustainable future through education, you would expect it to come from a happy place. But to borrow from Shakespeare, things are currently, rotten.
Nzimande was doing his best to highlight the promises of a better tomorrow and talk up South Africa’s progress in this regard. But the rotten reality showed its ugly side on 1 September reminding us that there is no better tomorrow when today is still so bad. That empty pledge first surfaced during the ANC’s People’s Forum’s pre-1994 with the phrase “better life for all” uttered ad nauseam by the ANC leadership on the campaign trail.
Many leaders from the liberation movement, including the country’s first democratically elected President Nelson Mandela assured citizens of a better life for all.
Education has been deemed the glue that would underpin the work of a rights-friendly democracy from the atrocious apartheid past. There have been positives. But overall, the rottenness continues.
Almost three decades later, regardless of what Nzimande said in Indonesia, education remains in a parlous state. Bright moments like Phakeng’s latest accolade do not mask the challenges And while there are multiple reasons for our plight, none epitomizes the rotten state of affairs as the latest example of indiscipline at a school in South Africa.
As Nzimande was rubbing shoulders with fellow ministers and senior officials from UNESCO, learners at Alexandra High School in Johannesburg were running amok, throwing school furniture and whatever they could find against each other. Pupils allegedly went on the rampage after the school principal refused them permission to celebrate spring day.
These ill-disciplined learners began throwing things at each other. They opened the fire extinguishers and sprayed their contents in the air. Taps were opened, water was wasted, and school furniture and learning equipment were destroyed.
Social media has been abuzz with footage of the learners going berserk. Over the past few months, social media has captured several similar incidents of pupils misbehaving in classrooms throughout the country and instances of assaulting teachers. This disgusting trend epitomises the rotten we find ourselves in.
Gauteng education spokesperson Steve Mabona confirmed that the matter was being investigated, describing the conduct of the learners as a barbaric incident, and urged parents to help instil discipline in children at home.
Defunct British music band The Smiths once released a track entitled Barbarism Begins at Home. Judging from the children’s conduct at Alex High School, is it fair to question whether this statement has any merit and whether children behave like monsters at home?
Indeed, parents are responsible for the actions of their children. In contrast, the death of corporal punishment, South Africa’s pro-rights-value constitution, and a liberal approach to children have resulted in a decline in values. Why are we so rotten?
UCT’s Phakeng, says there is no longer a strong focus on values in the country.
Young people who are disruptive, arsonists, or violent seem to rise the ladder in the eyes of society. But Phakeng, who was recognised for her outstanding achievements in mathematics against tough competition, including the former President of Tanzania and chairperson of the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education, Jakaya Kikwete, believes that young people need to understand the importance of education. “I never stop telling people that without education, I would not be where I am,” she adds.
Phakeng says she was incredibly proud when the EFF leadership pushed the education agenda and felt that efforts like that would help shift the dial among young people. In 2017, the red-beret party spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi received a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Witwatersrand 2017. In a statement at the time, EFF leader Julius Malema said the party ascribes to Che Guevara’s clarion call that the first task of a revolutionary is to be educated. “We also are inspired by Thomas Sankara’s correct observation that a soldier without proper ideological and political training is a potential criminal.
We are therefore confident that in Dr. Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the EFF is mounding and producing one of the best leaders of society.”
Not to be outdone, EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu, who has a Master’s degree in political studies from Wits, announced on Twitter in February 2018 that he has enrolled for a doctorate at the institution celebrating 100 years this year. “Research Proposal is officially accepted and will be a long doctoral research journey. It’s always great to be a student.
We will not disappoint Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere!” he wrote.
Role models like Shivambu and Ndlozi can help inspire children to focus intensely on education, insists Phakeng. “But we need more people pushing education, making studying fashionable, not just among politicians, as young people also look up to celebrities. If we can get people talking about the value of education, it would make a difference in inspiring change,” she told me.
Phakeng says that even if one drops out of tertiary studies, it is important to talk about the importance of going from school to university as an essential part of growing up and becoming an adult.
She points out that many people who have made it to the top as academics or even heads of companies are the products of parents who struggled hard; some were the children of domestic workers and labourers, coming from middle-class families, and were not politically connected. Those who have made it against obstacles don’t come any bigger than the hurdles placed before black South Africans under apartheid owe it to their parents and the people who raised and nurtured them.
Phakeng says she was saddened by the sad images she saw in the video at Alex High. As a role model herself, who has reached the pinnacle, she reckons it is time to restore a values system in South Africa, ensuring that young people care and are passionate about making a difference in the future.
She said that while there was a sense of entitlement among the younger generation, they need to realise nobody, not government or society, owes them anything, and they ought to contribute to finding solutions to improve South Africa.
Phakeng’s dream is for the younger generation to make good decisions, and explore solutions, even if it fails, that work towards a better future, even at the risk of being labelled boring for being studious. It’s a worth ethic that took her as a young girl from Ikageleng Primary in 1972 in Marapyane village and then Ikageng Primary in Ga-Rankuwa to the hot
seat at UCT, and in her latest achievement, conquering Africa. Advising students at Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences, University of Bremen, Germany, on the merits of studying towards a degree, University of Stellenbosch academic Professor Jonanth Jansen said yesterday for a university, it is often about throughput and graduation rates, while for business and industry, it is often about having
oven-ready graduates who can be absorbed into the labour market.
But for students, it is often about personal fulfilment, being qualified for a good job, or laying the groundwork for a good postdoc experience en route to an academic career. Congratulating students on their outstanding achievements, Jansen said: “You have been trained at one of our
best social science institutions in the world. About your competence, there can be no question. My challenge is to mix competence with compassion and then go out, change the world, or else we’re screwed.
What hope then for the children of Alex High? While people would be talking about those unruly children captured in the video being brought to the book and punished, one should ask how they get the message to them about the importance of education so that it can change.
Can they be inspired by the likes of Phakeng or our EFF leaders and Jansen to focus on the future when there is a glaring absence of values? Clearly, during such an eminent gathering, Nzimande could have been embarrassed in Indonesia if any global counterparts saw the video illustrating that something was rotten in the state of South Africa. The challenge is how we fix this mess!
Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness on education and the socio-economic, environmental and political factors that influence education in South Africa and the African Continent.