I have been asked several times to write about my observations of the education system in South Africa now that I have had a personal exposure to the system.  I have to admit, that I have been trying to avoid the topic. Having spent a few months teaching in one tertiary institution hardly makes me an expert on the education system in South Africa. I also fear ruffling some feathers of folks whom I admire and respect.

It is a delicate balance writing hard things about hard issues, but it is not a great exaggeration to say that the failure of the education system is one of the greatest risks facing this nation as it struggles to move forward post-apartheid. While many of the overwhelming issues facing the nation–poverty, racism, crime, sexism, HIV-AIDS, economic inequality, unemployment–may not necessarily be solved with better education, lack of education is a root cause of many of these issues.

The saying “the elephant in the room” is not part of the vernacular here as I have used it a few times to mostly quizzical looks. This is probably indicative of the fact that there is an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and that elephant is an extremely substandard education system particularly at the primary and secondary levels. I’ll save my thoughts on tertiary education for another day, and begin with a story from a local township school.

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I have a friend. Amy Murray is her name. She is a graduate student at UKZN in psychology. Child of an American missionary who started Masikane Baptist Church in Mpumelelo outside of Pietermartizburg. Born and raised in South Africa, but has been back to the States enough to know that Wal-Mart has a ridiculous amount of stuff on the shelves. She is also quite a photographer and was in fact present for one of the Tar Heel celebrations even though my artistic license left her out of the story. She is definitely getting her props here.

As part of her graduate program, the students are required to do field work. Amy petitioned her professors to see if it was possible for the graduate students to “adopt” a township school and see if there were ways that they could offer their services to the teachers and administrators. An obvious school was the high school in Mpumelelo across the street from Masikane. While this had never been done before, the faculty and students were excited about the opportunity, and after a series of meetings between the UKZN faculty, grad students and the administration of the high school it was decided that they would be glad to have the grad students help with the school. No one had ever volunteered to work at the school, and they were grateful to have willing co-laborers.

Things soon went south. The students decided to strike over conditions in the school. No textbooks, dreadful facilities, and a few teachers who were too demanding. They demanded the ouster of the principal and a half dozen or so teachers. The demands were actually threats upon their lives and the principal and teachers decided that their own personal safety was more important.

The students returned for a brief period and then went on strike again over ostensibly the same issues minus the “problem” teachers. Then the student leaders feared that a strike was not really meeting their goals of “the struggle”, so they decided to burn down the school. They succeeded in destroying about a third of the school before the fire was contained. Suffice to say, the UKZN students have not had much of an internship this past term, but they have had an eye-opening look into the dynamics of poor black schools. Interestingly, this story did not even make the local newspaper which generally has extensive coverage of local events. This school is one of hundreds (thousands?) that are so far off the radar screen that neither striking students nor arson by same protesting students is even worth a mention in the newspaper.

I have not yet been in a township school, but by all accounts the conditions are apalling for the majority of poor government schools. There is almost no technology equipment, often no library or textbooks, the teachers are underpaid, working in dangerous conditions and often are underqualified. There is a fascinating documentary put together by another Fulbright Scholar, Molly Blank, called Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa, in which the challenges facing poor students preparing for the university entrance exam (the Matric) is exposed.

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This is an issue that is not going away and stands to cripple South Africa moving forward. This is the definition of an elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Behind closed doors in hushed tones, everyone will admit the problem. In public, no one will. It is no use pointing fingers, but it is of great use recognizing that there are major problems in the education system that need to be admitted and addressed.

The majority of students entering the universities–the elite who have passed the matric–are simply not prepared to do university-level work on a world-class level. In the sciences, they do not have an adequate math or science foundation from their primary and secondary schooling to enable them to succeed in university-level work. For their part, the universities are trying to maintain international standards in their curriculum and expectations for their students, but I was stunned to personally grade MANY test scripts in which students received a 7% on their first exam in general chemistry–on a test that was relatively easy by international standards.  Seven Percent!?!

Tales of university work will need to wait for another day, but students demanding the removal of challenging teachers and burning down the secondary schools is certainly not sustainable.

To quote poet, David Byrne, “Watch out…you might get what you’re after.

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