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Change the world


The June 1976 Soweto uprising in no uncertain terms marked the beginning of continuous pupil and student protests that would flare up throughout the decades that followed, right up to the present.

This article appeared in The Herald of 19 June 2019, written by the university's Prof Slyvan Blignaut.


The June 1976 Soweto uprising in no uncertain terms marked the beginning of continuous pupil and student protests that would flare up throughout the decades that followed, right up to the present.

What isn’t as well known, but that changed the course of the nation, was the role of the ANC Youth League in the early 1940s that determined a new path for the mother body in the form of a direct challenge to the government.

It culminated in the Defiance Campaign of the early ‘50s and gained momentum over two decades to the fateful 1976 Soweto uprising.

It is thus apposite to pause and assess how far we have come as a nation since that fateful day, and more specifically, to assess the educational accomplishments since 1976 for which pupils sacrificed so dearly.

If one is cynical, then it becomes easy to assert that very little has changed post1994, but that would be disingenuous.

The educational landscape has changed substantially over the past 25 years.

Today, we have one education department that merged the 19 race-based education departments.

Today, all schools nationally follow a generic curriculum and no school can refuse any pupil entry on the basis of his or her race.

Having said this, we are all keenly aware that we need to go so much further than this because entry to good quality schools, both government and private, is still largely reserved for the affluent and privileged in society given the inhibitive fees charged by these schools.

It is here where the problem starts for those charged with governing the country.

The SA schooling system has been invariably described as a two-tiered or bimodal system where one smaller section serves the middle and upper classes with an excellent quality of education, and the other, far larger system, serves the majority of poor pupils for whom the quality is not always good.

The differences between schools in SA are stark.

Some of our schools can compare with the best in the world and others occupy broken-down buildings where some of the most basic amenities are lacking, including ablution facilities, libraries, electricity, computers and running water.

The journey towards a decent life for children emanating from this second tier schooling system, and their trying to get entry into higher education with its promise of a better life, is long, treacherous and arduous.

Because of poor schooling, many of these pupils will not make it into higher education, unlike their counterparts who come from the privileged schooling system.

Until the state has successfully addressed at least two serious challenges in the schooling system, namely quality and efficiency, all its other accomplishments will remain invisible.

If the issue of quality is not addressed urgently in the next five years, inequalities will be reproduced, and the ideal of a more equal and just society will not be realised.

Quality education is a crucial yardstick the world over and an important indicator of the wellbeing of a society, and it is acknowledged as such by the UN as one of its 16 sustainable development goals.

Efficiency of the system, which is closely aligned to quality, is a second issue in need of urgent intervention.

It is estimated that approximately 40% of pupils who start grade 1 drop out of the schooling system before they reach grade 12.

This is a serious problem with grave implications for the state’s financial resources.

It is fair to deduce that most of the pupils who are dropping out of school will be from poorer backgrounds and are not given the same opportunities to succeed.

Middle class children have what French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital”, that is they grow up in homes with books, magazines, newspapers, TV and internet.

Schools tend to build on this kind of prior knowledge.

The quality of the schooling system has a direct knock-on effect to institutions of higher learning, as this sector has to deal with a high percentage of students who were not well prepared by the schooling system but who managed to get into university.

The consequence is that many students fail and do not complete their degrees in the stipulated timeframe, or they take much longer to complete their qualifications.

A high percentage also drop out of higher education.

The statistics do not paint a rosy picture here.

Today, once more, just like the youth of 1943 and 1976, it is not surprising that students at higher education institutions, have, since 2015, once more been involved in the protracted #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, this time demanding free higher education, and the institution of a decolonised and Africanpurposed curriculum.

Politicians will do well to listen to these voices over the decades which are not merely whisperings but shoutings to be heard.

Those in authority will have to apply themselves seriously to the twin challenges of quality and efficiency to create a more equitable schooling system.

If not, then the immortal words of Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci will come back to haunt them when he observed, “the more things change the more they stay the same”.

‚óŹ Sylvan Blignaut is a professor in the faculty of education at Nelson Mandela University.