Overcoming apartheid's terrible education legacy

I have just returned from a visit to my hometown, Johannesburg. South Africa is a fascinating place, with incredibly warm and generous people, stunning natural beauty and diverse, exciting culture. However it’s also a country at the sharp edge of a post-colonial legacy that devolved to the blind lunacy of apartheid. It’s one of the most unequal countries in the world, with high levels of unemployment. It’s a country still finding it’s feet as a stable democracy and transitioning from a vertically stratified country divided along racial lines, to a horizontally stratified country where access to opportunity can be understood through some evolving concept of class.

Returning home for me means confronting many of these issues. People talk a lot about the state of the country, what the government is doing, how business is faring. I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s changing whenever I visit. South Africa’s latest census took place in 2011, so this time round I had some recent research to help frame my thinking.

Population Population of South Africa, Census 2011

Leaving to one side questions about both the categories and the accuracy of the Census (there are many), there are nearly 52 million people in South Africa, of whom roughly 41 million are Black African, 1.2 million are Indian or Asian, and 4.6 million each who are classified as Coloured (mixed race) and White. A striking statistic about South Africa is that the country has an incredibly high unemployment rate, between 35% and 40% depending on the definition used. Such high levels of stubborn unemployment make a harsh life for many South African citizens and places incredible strain on the resources of the country.

One of the most insidious of Apartheid policies was a wilful (racially motivated) failure to educate the majority of the population. So many of South Africa’s people are simply not equipped to participate in the job market, a situation which also makes evolving the economy from it’s industrial base very difficult. Looking at the Census results, an astounding 59% of the population over 20 have not completed Matric, the standard school leaving qualification. Another 28% have only this qualification and nothing further. This is an incredible handicap for any nation in a global information-based economy, and I’d argue that this awful legacy of Apartheid sits at the heart of South Africa’s troubles.

Education Educational attainment of South African population, Census 2011

I wanted to know more about this issue and spent a little time chatting with two young people I had met whilst exploring the city. Sakhile is 24 and works as a cleaner in the offices of a global corporation, despite having both his Matric and college training in computing and business administration. Leonard is 19 and was forced to drop out of school in his final year to look after his family (he has 3 siblings) after his mother was taken sick. He works in a bar, often spending more on transport to and from work than he takes home in tips, scandalously his only income from this job. Sakhile and Leonard agreed to talk to me about their lives and give me a little insight into the issues they faced.

Sakhile Sakhile

Leonard Leonard

I spoke to them separately and they don’t know each other, but they did have some things in common, such as attending the same church (Seventh Day Adventists). They both saw starting a business as their best route out of un(der)-employment, holding out little hope for gainful employment. Leonard assured me that getting a job would require a significant bribe even to get on the lowest rung of the employment ladder. He was angry about the state of the country and felt the government had failed him. Both of these men, though very young, had assumed a great deal of responsibility to look after their families. Both work hard to save as much money as they can to improve their situation. Leonard in particular felt unable to get ahead. He knew the cost of completing his Matric but felt he couldn’t make progress towards paying for school books or fees. Sakhile was also keen for knowledge, with a good idea of what kind of business he wanted to start once he’d saved up enough money. So what could help these young men and others like them to improve their lot?

The first point is to focus on education. Simply too many people in South Africa are undereducated and thus blocked from the type of work which will allow them to make even small incremental improvements. Leonard’s story is a very good example. How can he escape the precariousness of service industry underemployment without skills that enable him to undertake other tasks? His story is made even more heartbreaking by just how close he was to completing Matric, and his enthusiasm for his studies, particularly Maths. I’d emphasise that seeing him at work, he was also a skilled communicator and shrewd judge of his customer’s needs.

That suggests a second principle, which is to focus on business skills. Whilst wary of setting unrealistic ideals for entrepreneurial pots of gold, it remains the case that South Africa is woefully short of jobs, but rife with opportunity. Creating your own job is seen by many people as the only realistic route towards employment. The aspirations of 24 year old Sakhile and 19 year old Leonard demonstrate the issues with this principle. Leonard dreams of starting an enterprise, and making it big, whilst Sakhile has a very specific plan of attack for a particular revenue stream and is patiently saving money to address it. Whilst not wanting to discourage ambitious thinking, our principle should be to develop very real skills and start from the point of origin, rather than the goal. In other words, practical steps to get people started and give transferable life-skills in the process. The same principle applies anywhere else. Young people dreaming of stardom and working in McDonalds is a global phenomenon. Nevertheless, a hook is needed to bring people to the party, and starting your own business seems a good one. Maths, communication, teamwork, creativity and more can all be developed around this scaffolding.

A third principle is to focus on low-cost self-study as a base platform. This means providing materials that can be accessed very cheaply, used without detailed instruction and accessed as and when the costs are achievable. South Africa has many colleges and the government sponsors much such activity, yet so many South Africans simply remain outside the system. The cost of attending a course and buying textbooks is a significant barrier stopping Leonard from completing his schooling. He desperately needs a way to make slow, steady progress as he can afford it. Materials should be modular and inexpensive. The base platform should be ultra low-cost, enabling as many people as possible to gain access. This doesn’t address specific requirements for support, but means that the platform can scale inexpensively and self-starters like Leonard are not blocked by cost of access.

Of course, self-study is difficult and the system should enable, though not require, additional motivation and support. A notable feature of both Leonard and Sakhile’s stories is that they are already part of extended peer to peer support networks. Leonard found his work through a friend, who in turn found his job through an aunt. Such informal networks staff businesses across South Africa, the lack of formal indicators such as education means people rely on social capital to judge capability. Again, this is probably not too different from other countries, although perhaps exacerbated in South Africa. What this does mean though is potential users of the service are surrounded by extensive networks of peers with similar needs, raising the possibility of peer-to-peer support and potentially shared costs. What if Leonard and Sakhile could share the costs of learning with their peers and help each other shoulder the burden of that learning?

Finally, a work-a-day principle about appropriate channels. South Africa is a country with primarily mobile access to communications. Leonard and Sakhile both have mobile phones (known as cell phones in South Africa) and patchy, pay-as-you-go access to the internet through their phones. This is borne out by the Census data, an astonishing 65% of the population say they have no access to the internet. Of the connected 35%, nearly half, 16% say they access the internet through their mobile phones. Any service should make use of mobile, but probably also be service driven. For example, partnerships with print and internet access shops (which are widespread) could enable on-demand printing and internet driven administrative tasks. Such hubs could also be the focus for any philanthropic or government funded sponsorship of the system, although I’m usually in favour of building costs into use wherever possible.

Internet Internet access of South African households, Census 2011

Whilst I’d by no means suggest that such principles nail the problem based on such a small amount of research, I do think these are some good starting points for a possible self-study system in South Africa and potentially elsewhere. I’m inspired by the examples of Open Courseware being made available by universities around the world, and very interested to see if such systems can do as much to lever open the early stages of learning as those of higher learning. In South Africa, such a platform has the potential to address a very large segment of the population and go some way to addressing some of the most pressing and difficult social issues in the country. I’m very keen to hear about potential problems and even more so to hear about potential solutions and partnerships from anyone keen to explore these ideas, whether as an exercise or a potential project.