On Thursday, President Zuma presented his fourth State of the Nation Address, which could have been his second last in his five year term. But now that the spectre of the ANCYL is finally laid to rest, South Africans should perhaps brace themselves for yet another seven years of Zuma’s harangue.
However, this year’s state of the nation address is perhaps important for one reason other than that it coincides with the centenary of the ANC. It is two years before 2014, the year in which the ANC government promised to “halve poverty and unemployment”. Only clairvoyants can tell us how South Africa will, by 2014, halve poverty and unemployment. Is it possible, in any case, to address the challenge of poverty and unemployment without a concerted effort to improve the quality of education?
Regrettably, the lack of focus on improving the quality of education is a major weakness of Zuma’s state of the nation address. This is despite the fact that when he presented his first state of the nation in 2009, Zuma declared that “Education will be a key priority for the next five years”.
He promised back then, that “Early Childhood Development programme will be stepped up, with the aim of ensuring universal access to Grade R and doubling the number of 0-4 year old children by 2014…”. He also decreed that “Teachers should be in school, in class, on time, teaching, with no neglect of duty and no abuse of pupils!”
Zuma undertook to “improve access to higher education of children from poor families and ensure a sustainable funding structure for universities.” Again in 2010, Zuma said his government will “increase the number of matric students who are eligible for university admission to 175 000 a year by 2014”.
Three years later, Zuma’s state of the nation address doesn’t inspire confidence in the ability of the state to deliver on its promises. If anything, the address projects a president who either lies or is misled.
That the matric pass rate is on an upward trend is true, however, the credibility of results and quality of the pass remains suspicious in the eyes of many enlightened South Africans.
There is an obsession with the quantity rather than the quality of the passes; and this does not address the deep seated challenges of our education system. The failure to strike a balance between a pass rate and quality of the pass is injurious to the future of the country and the learners involved. This obsession places our education at a risk of no longer serving as an antidote to disempowerment, but as a catalyst in the perpetuation of inequality.
The 2014 target to increase the number of matric students who are eligible for university admission to 175 000 a year will not be met. According to the Ministry of Basic Education, the number of candidates who sat for 2011 matric exams was only “496 090 compared to 537 543 in 2010, a decrease by 41 453”. Only 348 117 passed and only 116.085 (24.3 per cent of 496 090) passed with university entrance.
To achieve the 2014 target, we will need first to reverse the downward trend in the number of students who actually write the exams before we increase by over 58 000 the number of students who pass with university exemption per year. This is the truth that Zuma did not want to tell the nation on Thursday.
Any president with a vision and aspiration to leave a lasting legacy would not allow himself to be misled by ministers who set unrealistic targets. He who accepts a shocking 7.2 percent pass rate without an inquiry into the quality of the pass may not be considered rational.
That our public school system suffers from the dangerous effects of irresponsible unionism – the major source of teacher absenteeism and teacher ill-discipline in schools – is another reality Zuma’s government is too scared to confront. It has become normal for teachers to spend weeks engaging in union activities reducing further the time spent on teaching.
This year already, teachers in Eastern Cape were on a go slow, despite President Zuma’s decree that teachers must be in class, on time and teaching. Yet, he used this year’s state of the nation address to thank teacher unions when in fact their actions go against the spirit of his official call. Why?
In a period that President Zuma rightfully declared that education will be a priority, the dirty politics of patronage and corruption have collapsed education in the Eastern Cape. That national government had to implement section 100 in the province to restore the delivery of education in that province undermines Zuma’s noble intention to make education a key priority.
It is worrying that no action has been taken against those who are ruining the future of the children in this province. And if national was working so well with the province in the intervention, as Zuma said, why is it that CAPS text books have not been delivered in schools? Why was there a go slow? Why was Gwede Mantashe and lately Zwelinzima Vavi meeting with the provincial government of Eastern Cape?
When Zuma indicated that “we appear poised to meet the target of 100 percent coverage for Grade R by 2014” many welcomed this announcement with excitement. If Statistics South Africa’s Household Survey released in August 2011 is anything to go by, it is not clear how the target of 100 percent enrolment in Early Childhood would be achieved. According to Stats SA, only 526 000 children were attending pre-school including day care, crèche and pre-primary compared to the 705 000 that president Zuma hailed as a major achievement.
Furthermore, Stats SA estimates that approximately 32,3% of 0-4 and 35,9% of children aged 5 attended Early Childhood Development in 2010 and only 696 000 were in Grade R. It will be interesting to see how president Zuma arrived at the figure of 705 000 enrolment in Grade R. There are only two logical conclusions: either the president lied to the nation or someone lied to him.
The trumpeting of the small successes on higher education cannot obscure important truths about the state of our higher education. Not only are provincial governments collapsing, universities are. Walter Sisulu University, Tswane University of Technology, and the University of Zululand are under national administration similar to the interventions in provincial governments. How, for instance, will the soon to be built universities in Mpumalanga and North Cape be immunized against the problems that beset struggling universities is not known.
The impasse on the intervention in the Eastern Cape, the sabotage in Limpopo and the interventions in other provinces, and in the universities provide enough ground for a national legislation to guide the national interventions. In the light of all these, the president could have at least said something about the much awaited Monitoring, Support and Intervention Bill. What a missed opportunity!
But President Zuma cannot be blamed for the conceptual confusion on the issue of access versus that of exit. He is a victim of his Minister and his advisors. After correctly diagnosing the challenge of access, President Zuma prescribed a wrong antidote.
In his 2009 address Zuma promised to expand access to higher education to children from poor families. He was again in 2011, made to announce the conversion of loans into bursaries for qualifying final year students. Again this year, Zuma has been misled to report that R200 million used to assist 25 000 students helped to expand access. This is not access, but exit!
The decision to convert bursaries for final year students does not address the challenge of access. It merely deals with issues of exit. It is a complete deviation from the Polokwane resolution that aimed to make “education free up to undergraduate level”.
By focusing on the small population of students completing their studies, the Ministry has chosen to deal with a simple issue of exit and successfully avoided to address the bigger question of access. It is for this reason that SASCO should learn an important lesson: the alleged ideological stance of a minister is not an indicator of progress towards the goal of free education.
There are many ways in which the issue of exit can be better addressed. For an example linking students to employment opportunities that would enable them to service their debt could serve this purpose. A youth service programme could be another option.
As all the misleading and lies continue, South Africans are fast becoming used to promises that are never fulfilled; while scepticism about government is growing. The risk of an image of the state as a bearer of falsehood is looming.
When that perception of state as a bearer of falsehood is deeply engraved in the collective mind of a society, citizens lose confidence in the state. They will begin to see the state in the eyes of Friedrich Nietzsche, who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), says “The State is the name for coldest of cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies; and this lie crawls out of its mouth”. The question is: when will our leaders begin to tell the truth, thereby making Nietzsche’s notion of the state never to find resonance with the South African public?