Mailbox: SA’s ‘gunpowder keg’ education system needs an overhaul. Here’s an option.

The #FeesMustFall movement has shifted all the attention to universities and the problems that lie within the structures, but the real issues start earlier. South Africa’s education system is somewhat complex, and ever-changing. From Outcomes based initiatives to the general standard of a 30 percent pass mark, it’s random at best. But a good education system is a feeder to an opportunity for a better life. Biznews community member Errol Horwitz says we owe it to the children of South Africa to overhaul the current system. Here are his thoughts. – Stuart Lowman

By Errol Horwitz*

South Africa’s educational system consists of a complex set of circumstances that remind one of a gunpowder keg. Provided a barrel of gunpowder is handled with care, all appears seemingly peaceful and dormant until an event triggers an explosive outburst of violence and destruction. So it is with student #feesmustfall protests that have grounded universities to a halt.

The upheaval was bound to happen, but not solely on the issue of free tertiary tuition. There are many systemic problems rooted in education policies that have demonstrably eviscerated the country’s educational system. These policies, the equivalent of toxic vapors, have commingled to trigger the mayhem on university campuses.

Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @ricoschacherl
Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @ricoschacherl

One unassailable root cause facing tertiary education is South Africa’s basic education embedded in a bureaucratically bloated government department with poorly trained and unmotivated teachers, and incompetent school administrators. They jointly and severally have failed to meet the needs of students, reminiscent of the insidious educational system that led to the 1976 student uprising.

Year after year the Basic Education Department churns out an assembly line of dysfunctional young people lacking in the three basic R’s of education. The department, unions and teachers disavow responsibility in creating and perpetuating decades of dysfunctional children. However, they decidedly contribute to the cycle of inter-generational poverty and exclusion. In addition, they place undue burdens on tertiary institutions who grapple with yearly intakes of essentially illiterate students requiring in-depth remedial tutoring.

Desperate and asinine measures have been introduced by government to turn education around. A prime example is so-called Outcomes Based Education that rewards failing pupils by promoting them to the next grade level. As a result, millions of children are trapped in a system lacking accountability, poor teacher training, complacent and disinterested administrators content with the status quo.

Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga

Shaking the bureaucratic tree of complacency and disinterest, based on personal experience, can be a challenging task. I was a volunteer at a primary school, run by a not-for-profit literacy organisation, tutoring eight year olds. It soon became apparent that individualized tutoring was a wasteful exercise.  What these young people, and likely many others, desperately needed was cognitive and learning disorder assessment followed by remedial or special needs intervention. I raised the issue with a school administrator, but to no avail. Perturbed by the lack of disinterest and concern, I approached Minister Motshekga for assistance. After persistent follow-up requests, the matter was eventually referred to Specialised Support, Western Cape Education Department.

Shortly thereafter a department delegation was dispatched to the school. It must have not been a pleasant experience for the principal as she confronted me at the first opportunity. It was neither a cordial or constructive discussion. Suffice to say she expressed displeasure for being “shown up”. The fact that her basic instinct in self-preservation preempted the interests of the affected children is emblematic of rife self-interest amongst do-nothing administrators. What was equally disturbing was her threat to disband the volunteer literacy program if I continued to volunteer. It will be no surprise to learn that at the behest of the NGO I am no longer a volunteer. Personal agenda and cowardice once again trumped the best interests of children.

As long as bureaucrats persist in dumbing down the basic education system, there can be no realistic expectation of fundamental change. But, fundamental change is imperative if matriculants are to be equipped with the educational tools to perform in a university environment. Whether this is politically feasible is an open question, particularly since change will likely alter the territorial imperative dynamic that bureaucrats in the Basic Education Department selfishly guard, as if their lives depended on it. Truth be told, it does!

The presence of pervasive under-performance and mediocrity in government schools is not unique to South Africa. Schools in the United States have had to deal with the phenomenon. Their solution was the establishment of charter schools which has dramatically improved the quality of education.


Charter schools are public schools operating under a charter between the school and government. Schools are independently run in their operations in return for greater accountability. Although publicly funded, a charter school is established by teachers, parents, or community groups. In return for public funding, charter schools must demonstrate performance in the areas of academic performance, financial management and organisational stability. Equally important charter schools have the ability to recruit and retain high-quality and motivated teachers.

Charter schools raise the bar of what is possible, and what should be expected in public education. Those who sought refuge in private schools are returning in greater numbers to public schools. In doing so, they are contributing to an inclusive, positive and growing multi-racial environment for young people from all socio-economic backgrounds. The introduction of charter schools in South Africa will markedly decrease the racial divide currently existing between public and private schools.

Children attending public schools in South Africa are denied the opportunity to succeed in school, career and life. Government in partnership with communities across the country can effect change through the introduction of charter schools.

The ANC government has propagated a lie as to its commitment to quality education for too long. South Africa’s young people know it all too well.

South Africa’s children do not deserve an educational system that is irreparably broken. We owe it them to overhaul the system, because “if not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

  • Errol Horwitz was a political activist in the 60’s, and returned to South Africa a few years ago, after residing abroad for more than three decades.
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