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Africa Day 2024: ‘To build a country, build a schoolhouse’

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Huguenot Primary School teachers Kulsum Nel and Charmaine Botha with Grade Rs make do with what they have after winter storms leave Tafelsig pupils without their prefab classroom built 12 years before, cramming 65 young children into the staffroom for lessons. Despite difficulties, there have been some laudable achievements in education in Africa over the past few decades. Educational inequalities are being rooted out slowly but surely, and access to schooling has increased, the writer says. – Picture: Ian Landsberg / ANA / Taken in April, 2005

By Kim Heller

If Africa is to become a successful sovereign Continent, education is King. This year, the African Union (AU) has placed a necessary limelight on education. As 2024 has been declared the Year of Education, African governments are being rallied to ensure quality education for all.

The theme of this year’s Africa Day is Educate an African Fit for the 21st Century: Building Resilient Education Systems for Increased Access to Inclusive, Lifelong, Quality, and Relevant Learning in Africa.

South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela, spoke of how no country can truly develop unless its citizens are educated. A similar sentiment was expressed by former Nobel prize winner in economic sciences, Amartya Sen, who said, “To build a country, build a schoolhouse.”

Addressing the 5th Session of the Committee on Social Policy, Poverty and Gender in November 2023, the African Union Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation (ESTI), Mohammed Belhocine, said, “We must ensure that every child in Africa has access to quality education, regardless of their background or location … it is a promise to the youth of Africa that their dreams are within reach, and it is a pledge to create a Continent where no one is left behind”.

Belhocine argues that a paradigm shift in the approach to education and skills development is required to unlock Africa’s potential and fulfil the aspirations of its people. He has advocated for technology-rich, creative, and experiential learning.

In February 2024, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) published Educate Africans fit for the 21st Century: Seizing the moment. The report cites how Africa’s growing youth population could be “a vital and transformative force” if provided with the “knowledge and skills to match their potential to the promises and perils already evident”.

The GPE states that the AU’s Year of Education 2024 “is a historic moment to put education back at the forefront of the policy agenda”. The GPE identifies the need to close the educational financing gap, strengthen foundational learning skills, prioritise gender equality, invest in teacher development and increase accountability and transparency.

Importantly, the GPE also stresses the need to develop relevant curricula, skills and infrastructure that align with job market, economic and development needs.

There have been some laudable achievements in education in Africa over the past few decades. Educational inequalities are being rooted out slowly but surely, and access to schooling has increased.

The Uesco Institute for Statistics shows that primary school completion rates in Africa have risen from 52 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2022. Secondary school completion rates have also risen significantly over the last two decades. On the tertiary educational front, there are over seventeen million university students across the Continent today. In 1970 there were fewer than 800,000.

But for many children in Africa, access to quality education is a dream deferred. Recent Unesco statistics point to the sad reality that over a quarter of children of school going age on the Continent do not attend school.

Girl children are less likely to be schooled. Nelson Mandela once said that it is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor. But for now, education is no passport out of poverty for millions of young girls in Africa. A report issued by Tax and Education (TaxEd) in February this year reveals how almost nineteen million girl children in Africa are missing school, largely as a result of the Continent losing educational funding.

Nelson Mandela spoke of how through education, the son of a farm worker can become the president of a nation. But this can only be on the back of quality education. A Unesco study found that 90 percent of 10-year olds in schools were unable to read or write. The lack of foundational educational skills is severe.

In a thought piece entitled ‘Transforming education and skills development in Africa,’ published on November 27, 2023, the global director of Education for the World Bank, Luis Benveniste, and Special Envoy on Youth for the AU, Chido Mpemba, wrote that children in Africa are at least five times less likely to learn the basics than those living elsewhere. “This means that millions of children are living without the skills they need to succeed in life and work,” Benveniste and Mpemba remarked.

This does not bode well for the development of a new generation of leadership.

The problems of education in Africa are not limited to basic education. Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai, an expert in higher education, has written that while there are as many as 1,300 recognised tertiary education institutions in Africa, there is an alarming mismatch between “graduate competencies and “industrial or societal needs”. This has resulted in high rates of graduate unemployment.

He has also written that much of the research by academics in Africa is undertaken to suit donor’s requirements and are often of little relevance to Africa’s immediate societal challenges. Relevance is critical. Without relevance, no educational system is resilient.

In his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney writes of how pre-colonial African education was directly connected with the purposes of the society. This is an absolute must as education is reconfigured on the Continent.

For Mohamedbhai, there is a pressing need to transform education in Africa. “This means rethinking and redesigning the education system to make it more relevant, inclusive, innovative, and responsive to the needs and aspirations of African youth,” he says.

There are many challenges and complexities in transforming education in Africa. The recent report issued by Tax and Education (TaxEd) Alliance shows that 28 of the 52 African Union countries surveyed are spending more than 12 percent of their national budgets on debt repayment. Fifteen of these countries spend more on debt than on education.

Conflict and war are causing havoc educationally. Unicef reported that in 2023, 19 million children in Sudan were out of school due to violence and displacement.

A strong investment in education that is distinctively decolonised, germane to Africa and fixated on development will help to pave a royal passage away from poverty to prosperity. It will also provide a citadel of resilience to African nations in an era of endemic poverty, conflict, and climate crisis.

The Continent was purposely underdeveloped under colonialism. The entire educational ecosystem disfigured and downsized to serve an imperialistic agenda. A fit-for-Africa purpose educational system is crucial to power-up and supercharge the Continent for future development.

It is not beyond our power to create a world in which all children have access to a good education,” Mandela said. “Those who do not believe this have small imaginations.”

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.