Education is about values… not a commodity

Top ten academic performers at Hoërskool Wagpos, an Afrikaans government school in South Africa
Top ten academic performers at Hoërskool Wagpos, an Afrikaans government school in South Africa

by TAU Bulletin

And a school matriculation certificate is not a ticket to the corner office, the VIP lift and the executive washroom.

Education is holistic: it is not a voucher for a comfortable life, nor a ticket to the turnstile of good fortune. The dictionary defines education as “the systematic development and cultivation of the mind and other natural powers. It begins in the nursery, continues through school and also through life. The impartation of knowledge by others is but a part of education.” The dictionary’s synonyms for education include “breeding, cultivation, culture, development, discipline, information, instruction, knowledge, learning, nurture, reading, schooling, study, teaching, training and tuition”.

Education is an intrinsic ingredient of a culture: it is the living embodiment of the passing from generation to generation the means by which the people of that culture conduct their lives.

The exuberance displayed by South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education Ms. Angie Motshekga when she recently announced the matriculation pass rate for South African pupils had jumped to 76.5% (from 60,6% in 2009) was met with scepticism and even derision. According to AfriForum, the actual pass rate was less than 38%, this because only half of the students who enrolled at the beginning of their school careers finished to write Grade 12, the matric year.

Mr. Tinyiko Maluleke, deputy vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Johannesburg asked in a hard-hitting article (Independent 5.1.14) whether the matric certificate could be trusted. He said the certificate was in danger of “meaninglessness, worthlessness and irrelevance. The country’s entire education system is at issue, and 20 years of democracy have not taught teachers and principals (of mainly black schools) to stop striking during school hours.”

Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State weighed in, saying SA’s education system is a “fraud”. He concurred with other critics that the results proffered by the Minister were “grossly misleading”. “We know that the top 5% of Grade 6 pupils know more mathematics than the bottom 20% of the maths teachers in the same grade. We know that South Africa was dead last, just above Yemen, at the bottom end of international rankings on science and mathematics.” Mediocrity has been institutionalized, he declared, while “government officials hope we are all ignorant enough to accept the ‘official lies’” because of the way the so-called pass figures were manipulated. Pass rates were “pulled up by white kids” said Graeme Bloch of Wits University. “Sorry to be racial, but if you are born on the right side of the tracks, you have a 100% chance of getting matric”.

(We must pause here to comment on this “if you are born” comment. Who you are when you are born is the result of your genetic background, a consequence of your family’s ancestral lineage. And if that history is replete with achievement, initiative, hard work, the ability to overcome obstacles and a skill and desire to move forward and improve yourself, then comparing those “born on the right side of the tracks” with those ”born into” poverty is fallacious. This delusion infers that there is some sort of pantry in the sky which dishes out ways of life to some, and other less salubrious ways of life to others.

Everyone in South Africa is a genetic descendant of his ancestors. Blaming poor education results on the “privilege” of some is disingenuous. Cultural backgrounds have played a huge role in education result disparities – Africans had no written word, while South Africa’s first-world educational system was brought to this country by European settlers who then superimposed it on Africans. Similar occurrences took place during the colonial times in other new-world lands.

As well, using the term “previously disadvantaged” (liberally utilized to neutralize white academic achievements) is to refute history. Indeed, Africans were actually advantaged by European settlement. From where did they receive everything they have now – their ability to communicate in a world language, their education, health, legal and legislative system, and the country’s first-world infrastructure?)

The laughing stock

Setting a matriculation pass mark of 30% makes South Africa the world’s laughing stock. Average grade three literacy achievements only reached 35%, with numeracy at 28%. In grade six, the language average is 28% and mathematics is 30%. These figures are a reflection of how the government has managed an education system not generic to Africa. Cultural and language problems have been swept under the carpet in the government’s rush to “prove” that education is improving, when the opposite is in fact true.

Education is not just learning – it is how you interpret, utilize and develop that which is taught. In a country where mediocrity is the norm, it is not surprising that many waving their certificates cannot get work. Dumbing down the worth of this certificate has caused heartache to millions. They were led to believe that their 30% pass would get them a job. The government has sacrificed young people as scapegoats to foster the illusion that the state’s education system is delivering.

Quality is the name of the game. Said Anne Oberholzer, Independent Examinations Board’s (IEB) CEO: “If I’m prepared to spend my salary on my child’s education … rather than buying clothes or a fancy car, you can’t stop me from doing that”. The excellent IEB pass rate was the result of “extra hard work” rather than necessarily school resources. “Success at matric starts way back – matric is a combination of all the years of school exposure”, she said.

It is a simple case of values and norms. If black teachers go on strike during class teaching times, if pupils burn down schools, if ministers don’t get school books to pupils in time, and if the government shows by example that one really doesn’t need a good education to get rich as a party hack with a cushy government job (where capacity doesn’t even come into it), why bother to learn? Why have unbelievably bad results in black schools earned the ire of government when at the same time they show by their actions you don’t have to get good marks to join the government jobs gravy train?

And why try to achieve through hard work and sacrifice when government will legally provide you with a goodly share of someone else’s company just because you are black? In both the public and private sector, there are ample opportunities to feed at the trough, so why struggle at school and university? This same hypocrisy extends to government complaining about the quality of teachers, while universities across the board give preference to blacks for academic posts. A University of Johannesburg advertisement for the Deputy Vice Chancellor: Strategic Services (24.1.14) says it is “committed to taking persons with disabilities and the potential of historically disadvantaged individuals into account in making this appointment”. So if merit is not a criteria for university posts, how will government produce good teachers, and how can this in the end provide competent students and graduates for the country’s future?


Entrepreneurship can’t be taught, yet it is the well-spring of all economies. It emanates from within and it is difficult, fraught with risk and sometimes very disappointing. It is easier to leaching on someone else’s success, a path made easier by government policies. While informal entrepreneurship is well entrenched in South Africa – small traders in townships and city streets sell goods someone else has produced – this doesn’t grow the economy.

Where is black entrepreneurial contribution to the formal economy? A weekly Pretoria is enthusiastically supported by locals and the diplomatic community. Selling mostly food, more than seventy stalls are manned by whites, Portuguese, Indians, a Moroccan family, Greeks, some Chinese. There is not one black South African stall. What is the point of an education that cannot extend to doing something for yourself?


Paging through any SA farm magazine shows the extent to which farmers have themselves developed and streamlined their profession. They haven’t just studied agriculture, they have applied it, improved on it, created new processes, adapted international methods to South African conditions and perfected agriculture to such an extent that 35 000 of them can feed 53 million people. Education was just the beginning. Without application, initiative, resilience, the ability to overcome hardship and plain hard work, where would South Africa be in terms of food security?

Most government officials and politicians see themselves as an intrinsic part of first world South Africa. They wear the clothes and drive the cars, but many do not exhibit the values generic to this first world. Education in this context should mean:

  • solving the problem yourself, not hiring a consultant;
  • making sure the traffic lights work and if they don’t, ensuring that a point officer keeps the traffic flowing until the robot is fixed;
  • making sure our cities are not littered and polluted until they look like Nairobi or Lagos;
  • answering the phone, replying to the e-mail and delivering the service to the people who pay your salaries;
  • owning up, with an apology, to the fact that many in government are incompetent and are unable to run South Africa as it should be run;
  • accepting criticism without retaliation in the form of racism accusations;
  • deciding that police asleep on duty, taking bribes and generally running amok with weapons is not worthy of a law-enforcement body;
  • immediately sacking all persons with criminal records employed in government;
  • not contemptuously ignoring court judgments;
  • ridding yourself of a completely unjustified entitlement syndrome because you didn’t create what you are now enjoying;
  • not wasting taxpayer’s money with impunity, and being contemptuous when confronted with this fact;
  • not handing over productive farms to incompetents and admitting this policy is a failure;
  • trying to emulate those who achieve instead of denigrating them and accusing them of being ”privileged”.

A point to ponder about education: Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe has three university degrees, but he remains a savage tyrant, contemptuous of his people’s quality of life, of democracy and of what others think of him. Education without values is truly just a piece of paper!