South Africa’s education system: Complicating the basics

I have written about this topic before, unfortunately things seem to be going from bad to worse. For the purposes of this article we will only look at the Department of Basic Education’s prerogative, which is Grades R to 12. In a nutshell I argue that Angie’s department is getting the basics wrong and far too little education transpires.

Matric matrix:

South Africans have an unhealthy obsession with matric, Grade 12. Each year we see a gleaming Angie Motshekga proudly bellowing praises for a job well done as the matric pass rate is announced. In January 2015 she was feigning a subdued state to be congruent with the, rather negligible, decline in the pass rate. It decreased from 78.2% in 2013 to 75.8% in 2014. She was, however, quick to point out that the pass rate was still above the 75% her department had set out to achieve by the year 2014.  Some commentators have ominously pointed out that the ‘true’ pass rate is actually 41.7%, with 688 660, out of an initial 1 252 071, learners who started Grade 1 in 2003 having sat for the matric exams. The remaining students either dropped out or were ‘held back’ along the way.

Quality of the matric certificate:

Speak to any first year university lecturer, or read the unrelenting warnings of Prof. Jansen, and you will learn that the standard of basic education is dwindling, as if to imitate St Jacob Zuma’s get-down manoeuvres at Khulubuse’s wedding turn-up. We cannot call the current education system a system! A report card with the following marks constitutes progress in the cataract clouded eyes of the department: Life Skills (LO) 40%, Maths Literacy 40%, IsiZulu 40%, English 44%, Natural Sciences 30%, Business Studies 30%, and Accounting 30%.

There is nothing systematic about offering subjects that are not recognised by your own country’s universities, Maths Literacy and Life Skills are not considered by, serious, institutions of higher learning. The Mail and Guardian revealed that a mammoth 327 schools did not offer pure maths to matriculants in 2014. Teachers at these schools say learners opt to apply for Nursing, and other careers that do not list pure Maths as a prerequisite. Now you know why you encounter nurses who are so devoid of patience you would object to them being tasked with offering nurse care to a mannequin.  Angie has announced an inquiry into the pass marks that are so low a learner can be promoted without knowing 70% of the relevant knowledge in some subjects. I can tell you now that the committee will find that the pass rates need to be revised, quite frankly it really isn’t rocket science. Would you trust an accountant, doctor, architect, nurse, or prosecutor who only knows 30% of his/her work?

Socio-economic context:

The minister of education plays the role of overseer and custodian of policy. Policy is important both in its theoretical and practical form. There are instances when theory fails to translate into practice and the minister is called upon to intervene. The Limpopo textbook debacle of 2012 comes to mind. Similarly there is a gulf between policy that outlaws corporal punishment and what happens in schools where many teachers still buy into the outdated  notion of “spare the rod spoil the child’’, or rather have no idea how to effectively use other forms of punishment in classes where the learner: teacher ratio may be up to 60:1. The ministry continuously fails to take proactive action in this matter.

Occurrences in communities threaten schooling in a manner reminiscent of the dark days of the 1970s. Primary school learners in Manenberg, Cape Town, are accompanied by their parents to school due to the high prevalence of gang violence in the area. Learners were left without a school in Limpopo after the School Governing Body at Luthuli Combined School decided they are changing the school to a primary school to be named Luthuli Primary School in January 2015. This decision, taken without the consent of Angie’s department, taken because a high school promised by the department has not yet been built, is criminal but somewhat unsurprising in a country where learners are barred from attending school during service delivery protests.

In some parts of the country, such as in Kuruman, Northern Cape, where service delivery protests included the community barring their children from attending school for most part of the second half of the year 2014, learners have been informed they will have to repeat the year. The Mail and Guardian reported that nearly 17 000 children in 54 schools were affected. Schools have a bizarre situation where last year’s Grade 1 learners are still in Grade 1 and the schools have to welcome new Grade 1 l earners.

Poverty remains a factor that determines the access to and quality of education a learner receives. It is the poor, most likely black, learner who is at risk of falling to death in a pit latrine at school, or learns under a tree or most recently had to write supplementary exams after missing an exam due to a taxi strike. Matriculants, from Johannesburg, whose sin was not having access to alternate transport on an exam day, that happened to see taxi drivers on strike over e-tolls, cannot register for university in February 2015 but must rather wait to write supplementary exams. Their dreams deferred for a year, at an expense that far outweighs the amount it would have cost the concerned schools to organise buses, or even for those parents with cars to offer to give lifts…

Some positives:

On the 22nd of December 2014 the Mercury newspaper reported that plans were in place to scrap the idiotic policy that says learners cannot fail more than one Grade in a phase. To illustrate, if ‘Steve’ fails Grade 10 he has a free pass in Grade 11 as Grade 10-12 constitute a singular phase. This moronic idea was pushed into promulgation in 2012 amid criticism, needless to say criticism washes off the backs of the current ANC-led government like water of a duck’s back.

Angie must be credited with ensuring we know just how appallingly the system is performing, by insisting on the Annual National Assessments (ANA). Furthermore she has displayed some resistance when the teacher unions have started to act like they run the department. Angie must insist on making compulsory the assessments of proficiency of teachers and promotion of skill development where these are lacking, particularly if the CAPS policy is to have any chance of being better than previous curricula policies.

What to expect in 2015:

The ANA will again reflect that the learners in the assessed grades cannot count or write at a level that is adequate for their level. Miraculously these same learners will make it to matric and pass. Socioeconomic ills will continue to castrate the academic potential of the poorest learners.

The crucial aspects of the system that require change will remain untouched. The quality of teaching will remain below par in majority of schools. The high level of unemployment has denigrated the profession of teaching, much like nursing, into a ‘safe’ career option. Thus average learners, with no passion for teaching are studying education purely for employment purposes. Simply put if Mbali was average or below average in Maths as a learner, chances are minimal that she will suddenly become an excellent Maths teacher.

The department will continue to drag its feet in its duty to ensure access to equal education. It will still be up to civil organisations, like Section 27, to ensure that Angie’s department honours its promise to eradicate mud schools. In 2011 the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI) was launched and promised to upgrade 140 schools by 2014. An answer to a parliamentary question, by the Democratic Alliance, revealed that only 17 had been upgraded in the earmarked three year period. This is a 12% completion rate, a fail, even in Angie’s own, partly Hlaudi with a chance of meatballs, reasoning.


Attacking the triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment necessitates an impeccable basic education system and the current status quo falls short of this requirement. At the present moment there appears to be a lack of political will, communities are acting in ways that sabotage their children, the quality of teaching leaves much to be desired and learners feel entitled to matric certificates and entrance to higher education.

In 1977 Oliver Reginald Tambo, addressing the first congress of the MPLA in Luanda, outlined the ANC’s vision and stated

… We fight for a South Africa in which the people shall be guaranteed the right to work, in which it will be the duty of the state to ensure that the doors of learning and of culture are open to the working people…

I suspect he would be depressed by the fact that the custodians of the state tasked with opening the doors of learning do not deem public education good enough for their children, and instead the majority of young people complete basic, and tertiary, education without skills and account for 70% of those who are unemployed. The school system is a microcosm of a nation that is going off course…

zapiro dept of ed textbooks


2 thoughts on “South Africa’s education system: Complicating the basics

  1. Hmmm… quite sad. There is nothing positive abut the education system. Is it better to have a high pass rate? Passing with a 30%, how is it beneficial? Maybe if we had teachers who had more knowledge of the subjects they are teaching, things would be better… but then again, how would we expect them to know anything when they themselves passed all their classes with below 60% with the exception of Zulu.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s