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Education in South Africa yet to graduate from apartheid logic

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has briefed the media this weekend after the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) show how scholars in South Africa have come last in a reading ability study of 50 countries.

By Kim Heller

“Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…?” as the apple fell down from the tree in the orchard on his father’s farm. And so, it was to be that a young contemplative Cambridge University student came upon the notion of gravity in 1665. Isaac Newton’s epiphany was to change our understanding of the physical world forever and contribute to immeasurable and infinite significant scientific advancements.

Newton had enjoyed the fruits of a wealthy lifestyle and plentiful, premium education. This is, by no means, the formula for human excellence, invention, or genius. However, Maslow’s five-tiered Hierarchy of Needs teaches us how basic physiological and safety needs must be met before individuals can ascend to “higher needs” such as self-actualisation. In other words, contemplation is too often a luxury afforded to those who can afford it. When Newton was asked how he discovered the law of gravity. He replied, “By thinking about it all the time”.

A well-respected black South African physics professor once said to me that if that apple had fallen in front of someone who was simply hungry, even if he or she had an appetite for knowledge, the individual would have been more likely to simply eat the fruit rather than contemplate about the nature of the apple’s descent to the ground as Newton did. Such is the nature of human beings, and such is the nature of being.

It is no far-fetched theory to argue that educationally, black South Africans were starved under apartheid and colonialism. It was not that the taps of the education ran dry for black South Africans – it was that they were deliberately shut off, in order to diminish black knowledge, education and thought. All in the service of whiteness.

Black lives were pruned from viable, self-sufficient communities into a sorry, powerless mass of cheap labour for white capital and agriculture. Under white rule, the life of black South Africans was one of denial, of deprivation, of doubt, and of daily despair. Leisurely contemplation under a fruit tree for a people oppressed not only economically but culturally was not a common past time. For most black South Africans, the apple was entirely out of reach, as basic physiological and safety needs were threatened and violated.

Consistent with the policy of apartheid, historically black tertiary educational institutions were deliberately placed at the periphery of economic centres and were often referred to as “bush universities”. The peripheralisation of black tertiary education was not only geographic, but academically prized degrees such as engineering were strictly off limits. The infrastructure of these universities was deliberately underdeveloped compared to their white counterparts, and understandably these institutions became sites of resistance and political protests.

One would have expected that under the great willow of political liberation education investment in deprived black South Africans and black universities would have been turned from bonsai to baobab and allowed to flourish. But it has not. Although South Africa’s educational spend as a percent of its GDP is among the highest in Africa and globally, it seems to be missing the mark. Education is a vital engine of social and economic development. Countries with the highest rates of participation have done well economically and socially. Education should be an equaliser in democratic South Africa, but it has not been. For in the Rainbow Nation, education, like all organs of the society, remains the composition of colonialism.

Literary levels are low, and plummeting. With educational excellence struggling to be the currency of a democratic South Africa, as it should, black scholars and universities remain in the margins. The issue of basic literacy is of concern. Literacy is an educational issue, but it is also an economic issue. The World Literacy Foundation reported how illiteracy is costing South Africa’s economy over one hundred billion as approximately 3 million people battle with basic reading, writing and mathematics skills. The report states how illiteracy is ruining lives and is linked with an array of poor life outcomes, such as poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, crime, and long-term illness.

The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga briefed the media this weekend after the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed how scholars in South Africa came last in a reading ability study of 50 countries. The minister said that, “Whilst as a department we play a very important role in supporting early learning skills and teaching children how to read, the entire ecosystem must also be involved. Schools do play a very important role in providing material especially for families who rely solely on them.” She urged families to breed a culture of reading at home.

We should not be surprised at the high notes of illiteracy and reading for meaning. After all, black children are not taught in their home languages. That the government gives pride of place to English and Afrikaans in schools, and not African languages is a sign of a government that has never freed itself or its citizens from the clutches of colonialism, and a government that lacks the pride and confidence in its own being. The school syllabus and the language of education remains fundamentally untransformed and un-liberatory.

The reality of subjugation Steve Biko spoke of decades ago prevails today. He said, “Unfortunately the books you read are in English. English is a second language to you; you have probably been taught in a vernacular especially during these days of Bantu Education up to Standard 6; you grapple with the language to JC and matric, and before you conquer it you must apply it now to learn discipline at university”.

Biko continued, “You never quite catch everything that is in a book; you certainly understand the paragraph, (I mean I am talking about the average man now; I am not talking about exceptional cases), you understand the paragraph but you are not quite adept at reproducing an argument that was in a particular book, precisely because of your failure to understand certain words in the book. This makes you less articulate as a black man generally, and this makes you more inward-looking; you feel things rather than say them.”

No white child or very few would be able to string together a sentence in Xhosa or Zulu. They never have had to, under apartheid and now even in a democratic South Africa. The system prescribes whiteness, its languages, and its ideology, not only in schools but in every sphere of a society that has never been subject to true transformation and liberation. To push young black scholars to be fluent in the master’s language and ideas but unversed in one’s own language and ideas, is a mark of an educational system deeply rooted in colonialism.

There will be no economic or educational equality until the fundamental issue of language is treated with the importance it warrants. There will also be no economic or education until meaning, ideas, thought and contemplation are freed from colonial omnipotence. This was the righteous call of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. That the ANC government has not invested in ensuring that young black scholars are taught in their own languages is symptomatic of the colonial capture over ideology and institution. That black academics are not routinely fighting for the liberation of syllabi from colonial language and thought, is a terrifying indictment of intellectual doubt. The question of language is also about cultural supremacy. It is about pride, power, and development. The prolific writer and thinker, Ngugi wa Thiongo was correct when he said language is a signifier of power. No country has developed on the tongue of a foreign language.

In apartheid, black people were stripped bare, not only of their land, but of their culture, and identity, and were forced to march to the tune of the oppressor. The class of 1976 rose up in a legitimate rage to protest against this stifling racism. Today black South Africans still sway to the master’s tune. Not yet scriptwriters of their own story, many black scholars are the “empty shells” Biko spoke of so profoundly and sadly in the apartheid era. Able to speak English to perfection and perform well for their white masters, few love and advance endogenous languages, values, and ideas. This is not education. This is not literacy. It is but a sad mimic in the script of puppet mastery. Fluency in another man’s tongue, is hardly the speak of freedom The empty shell of blackness cannot be filled up with the language of colonisers and oppressors, or on the ideology and ideas of the master. It can only be filled up by a gutsy self-belief and internal rebel against an education still vested in and on apartheid ideals and logic.

In the words of Isaac Newton “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion”. For now, the master’s voice is loud and clear. And for young black South scholars it is incomprehensible.

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.