SA’s education system has disabled its youth – Prof Tim Crowe

CAPE TOWN — In an acerbic critique of assumptions underlying the new web tool developed to enable policy makers and local governments to uplift the country’s youth, UCT’s Emeritus Professor and biologist, Timothy Crowe, argues that dismal education is actually responsible. The ultimate efficacy of the web tool, featured in yesterday’s Biznews where the ‘’how’’ of its implementation was questioned, now comes under scrutiny via Crowe who says the education system fails to encourage young people to ask “why?” on any given topic. He gives examples of propagandistic thinking revealed in a youth discussion forum about the June 16th, 1976 murders by police of protesting Soweto children. The kids’ discussion input was great when it came to “what” happened, but entirely absent on the reasons why. One has to admit, this glaring failure is an eloquent feature of Crowe’s argument against not just one, but several articles giving reasons for today’s troubled and disempowered youth. He then moves on to one of his favourite topics; transformation of tertiary institutions, the means by which he promotes are pilloried by the Fallists. Crowe remains an excellent example of promoting critical thinking, whether you agree with him or not. – Chris Bateman

Top cartoonist Zapiro’s take on the burden of South Africa’s youth. More magic available at

By Tim Crowe*

Two recent public intellectual articles comment on and/or illustrate the “state” of South Africa’s “youth” and “young people”. The first article: South Africa has failed its young people. What can be done about it” could be improved if the first sentence of the title were changed to: ”South Africa is socio-economically and educationally ‘disabling’ its kids.” Secondly, put a “question mark” at the end of the second sentence of its title.  The second: ”The state of SA’s youth is simply a vague obviosity.  

I accept that my abovementioned comments are pedantic criticism. But, such obfuscation and grammatical sloppiness is a first step towards becoming an academic slapgat in this new era supposedly dominated by “Critical Decolonization”.

The harsh, sad, tragic reality is that many, far too many, of South Africa’s youths, young people, teens, juveniles, lads, lasses, striplings, whippersnappers, minors, fledglings are socially, economically and, especially, educationally ‘disabled’. Before I attempt to explain why this is so and offer possible solutions – a definition and some history.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

What are “young people”?

Fundamentally, kids – including many (most?) university students – are not merely ‘young people’. They are human neophytes – bright, passionate citizens in training – absorbing ‘knowledge’ and formulating opinions about the past and present. With very few exceptions, they are inexperienced and immature and, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on their families (core and extended), religious leaders and academic educators who play key roles in shaping their physical, ethical, cultural, political and intellectual ontogeny. With guidance and unfettered, independently acquired self-awareness, kids learn how to critically challenge dogma and understand and implement imparted and self-generatedknowledge. Other key attributes of kids are their passion, sense of urgency and inherent belief that “anything is possible”.

Some history

On the morning of Youth Day (16 June), I listened to a group of school kids on the radio asked to explain what they understand about the Student Soweto Uprising in June 1976.  

None mentioned Apartheid or Hendrik Verwoerd’s grossly inferior Bantu Education System designed to limit the scope of education for ‘swart, nie-blanke kids. None commented on its goal to produce a ‘competent’, but educationally limited, servile, at best second-rate citizens. None focused on the students’ objections to Minister Andries Treurnicht’s decree made (without consulting them, teachers and parents) that Afrikaans was to be put on an equal basis with the preferred English as a medium of instruction and examination. There was no mention that the police (spoiling for violence) first shot at protesting students when they killed their attack dogs, or of the subsequent widespread looting and burning of bottle stores, beer halls and government buildings.

The kids interviewed on the radio only talked about policemen “shooting kids like dogs”.  

Those recounting the Uprising, regardless of age, invariably mention victims of the uprising and subsequent rioting, especially kids like Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson who were shot. Few remember, let alone mention, Dr Melville Edelstein, a sociologist and respected Jewish academic, who had devoted 18 years to humanitarian and social welfare projects in Soweto. When he returned to Soweto from Orlando East, while making his way through the violence to ensure the safety of his staff, he was stoned to death by a mob and his battered body was marked by a sign that said: “Beware of Afrikaners”.

Unreasonable expectations?

Of course, 10-year-old kids shouldn’t be expected to fully comprehend the ultimately horrifyingly destructive causes and consequences of Apartheid and this and other uprisings that sparked the general civil unrest movement to “render South Africa ungovernable” and to declare “no education without liberation”.  

But, those responsible for educating these kids could and should have done much better.

Moving to university students, on 6 August 2015, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Cape Town (now VC at the University of Fort Hare) hosted a transformation-themed assembly for all its students and staff to “come up with practical and workable suggestions for strategies on how to achieve the faculty’s goals around transformation”.  

On the subject of curriculum transformation (which was characterized as “decolonization”), student Athabile Nonxuba commented on “creating something new”. But, his only suggestion (greeted by loud applause) was to implement former UCT Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s Problematising Africa syllabus (developed in the late 1990s) as a “Foundation” Afro-centric Course to enlighten first-year’s to the pre-colonial history of Africa. Nonxuba’s exact words were: “Just go to that course.”

Some other “tangible proposals” were made to reform the faculty’s work and climate.

Among these were:

  1. a virtually unanimous rejection of current ‘strategies’ for academically ‘supporting’ educationally ‘disabled’ students;
  2. calls to build a repository of all African and Southern scholarship by sharing existing course outlines and reading lists between departments and faculties for better cross-pollination; and
  3. requiring “all courses incorporate 10% input from other departments”, whether through guest-lecturers, co-teaching or other formats.

With regard to Mamdani’s Problematising Africa foundation course (that was to be mandatory of all first-year Humanities/Social Sciences students), independent of the blatant ‘Old-Boys’ resistance that he described in his “Is African Studies to be turned into a new home for Bantu Education at UCT” [CODESRIA Bulletin, 1998 (2): 11-15)], there was cogent pedagogical argument against many items in his proposed reading list. These were outlined by ‘Old Boy’ Prof. Martin Hall in his “Bantu Education? – A Reply To Mahmood Mamdani” [Social Dynamics 24.2 (1998): 86-92].  

Read also: SA’s youth don’t fancy their country’s prospects – global survey

Regardless, of who was the ‘winner’ of this debate (academic turf war?), no current scholars of African studies would resurrect Mamdani’s syllabus today, probably not even Mamdani. Much, much more new stuff about pre-colonial African history has been discovered and wrong/outmoded ideas refuted since 1998.

Once again, those responsible for educating these kids could and should be doing much more about ‘real’, hands-on education.

What prospects do young South Africans have?

Like some ‘moderate’ Fallists and their supporters, the articles’ authors offer statistics and demographics relating to age, education, employment and wealth distribution, and attribute today’s sad situation largely to the “legacy” of the “past” preventing today’s kids reaping unspecified “dividends”. They cite “web tools” that can help “policy makers take a fine-grained rather than a scattergun approach to support youth well being” – whatever that means

But, in the end, they stress the bottom line:

“Life’s chances are determined by the quality of education.”

which they bizarrely conclude “is determined by the income of parents“ and “the spatial legacy of apartheid”.

‘Fresh attempts’

So, what solutions are on offer? One is “the creation of [yet another soon-to-be-published] a policy-oriented research project on employment, income distribution and inclusive growth at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to look into the stubborn problems of youth unemployment, among other issues”. Another is to ask “local governments … to play a more proactive role in youth development”, again citing “the spatial legacy of apartheid” and “vast differences “ … in “income, education and employment opportunities”.  

This can be facilitated by a “web tool, they call the Youth Explorerhas been developed to help a host of players, including policy makers, to access information about young people in a particular area”. This tool allows for comparisons within provinces and between different rural and urban areas, and they cite some results for poor, rural Nkandla and wealthy, urban Sandton. They maintain, somehow, that information from ‘tools’ such as this “could lead to focused policy interventions that are in tune with young people’s local realities, and conversations that may be able to break the intergenerational cycle of inequality and poverty area by area”.

In reality, these potentially powerful “tools” are little more than means of identifying and geographically displaying the ‘metastasized’ socio-economic-educational ‘cancer’ that plagues South Africa.

Others, e.g. internationally renowned and respected educationalist Prof. Jonathan Jansen, are not convinced that these numbers, stats and rhetoric justify endless capitulation unionized school teachers and to unsubstantiated accusations and incoherent demands for “decolonization” by radical Fallists. Jansen et al. demand a more direct approach. They insist that that families reassert their traditional parental roles that were undermined during the “render South Africa ungovernable” and “no education without liberation” Era. Apartheid is not the only ‘past’ Era to be abandoned and blamed. These resuscitated families and communities should use the ballot box, peaceful protest and, if necessary, non-violent mass action to require (while being part of the process) the ‘liberated’ Basic Educational System to acquire an administrative ‘spine’ that at least requires kids, teachers and schools to do their ‘jobs’ or replace them with someone who can and will.   

Read also: Tim Modise: Impatient Youth – Writing was on the wall, 1976 reflections

Universities like the University of Cape Town (and I mean by this academics – not centralized bureaucrats) could then:

  1. identify kids who are capable of studying further and succeeding, rather than continuing to use raw matriculation results to pursue the “massification” admission policies instituted since 2000 that result in massive academic failure and indebtedness;
  2. lobby (with the assistance of centralized admin and revitalized communities) the government and/or independently raise funds necessary to comprehensively support the most socio-economically oppressed students from day 1 to graduation;
  3. re-evaluate and, if necessary, incorporate pedagogically independent failing academic support programmes into Core Departments who have the appropriate disciplinary expertise;
  4. seriously investigate the constructive demands of students and ‘progressive’ staff to produce Afro-relevant and effective curricula that can do the job envisioned by Mamdani and a diversity of other forward-thinking academics; and
  5. adapt curricula or help to develop them in other specialized educator-educating institutions to produce world-class, Afro-relevant school teachers and principals.

This requires non-racial, synergistic collaboration between ALL able, interested and affected parties.

Then maybe “the South African dream of the “Born-Free” generation may not be entirely lost”.

  • Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.