Glimmers of light in the gathering gloom

Posted on June 12, 2016


Fuel prices rose again last week, only days before the latest unemployment statistics confirmed what this column has long forecast: that the jobs massacre will continue. Largely to blame, of course, is the ongoing slump in commodity prices. But the steady march of mechanisation is also taking its toll.

Then there are the latest, well documented, figures on food costs supplied by the Pietermaritzburg-based social action group, Pacsa. These reveal that, at the time when the Child Support Grant (CSG) increased by R20 a month, the minimum cost of providing a young child with a nutritionally balanced diet rose by R75.75.

Inadequate in the first place at R350 a month — R572.80 is the estimated minimum nutritional requirement for a young child — the CSG provides little relief in an environment that stunts most children throughout their early developmental years. Children from poor backgrounds therefore start out in life with massive handicaps, an extraordinary waste of human potential before even reaching school age.

Yet we are constantly being told that education is the answer to all our problems; that if we produce a better educated workforce, prosperity will be guaranteed and poverty vanquished. This is another of those ludicrous myths peddled by the makers of wish-lists.

However, education is one of the keys to a better, brighter future. But not in isolation. A politically and economically stable environment is necessary for an educational environment that does not — as the current one does — waste the potential of the majority of our children.

Some, though inherited advantage, more recently acquired wealth or sheer hard work, sometimes coupled with a bit of luck, acquire greatly demanded skills and qualifications. But too many of them now make up the reported “brain drain” of skilled South Africans, ranging from farmers and medical personnel to engineers leaving the country.

The Democratic Nurses Organisation (Denosa), for example, estimates that there are more than 30 000 South African nurses now working abroad, mainly in Europe and the Gulf states. There are also reportedly some 800 South African commercial farmers now devoting their skills to countries such as Mozambique, Zambia and Congo (Brazzaville).

This is a very depressing outlook. However, South Africa remains a wealthy county, listed as “middle income” because of the huge disparity between rich and poor. And there exists a banner of hope in an egalitarian Bill of Rights.

The current economic and political system has clearly created conditions at variance with the pursuit of these rights. But there are growing signs of rebellion against the alienation of the majority from the political and economic machine. Some are nihilistic, disruptive. Others provide glimmers of light indicating a path out of the gathering gloom.

Whether in service delivery protests, community food gardens or education the dominant theme is democratic: people doing things, through unions or other groups, by themselves and for themselves. What is needed is for the positive elements, especially in education in its broadest sense, to be encouraged, expanded and co-ordinated. This cannot happen by diktat.

In a view shared by teacher unions, Dr Michael Rice, director of the non-profit Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools (PETS) notes: “There is no point trying to up-grade anyone who is resistant to the process; solutions imposed from the top down are doomed to failure.”

Part of the PETS scheme, piloted in Barrydale in the Western Cape, is an in-service up-grading programme that, says Rice, has produced “the first course in South Africa by volunteer teachers, for teachers, with teachers, tested in the classroom, translated into Afrikaans (the dominant language in the area) and available on the Internet.“

PETS has now linked up with e-Classroom, a free online resource for teachers and parents that has so far logged more than 627 000 users. Commercial sponsorship of the various subject modules, from Grade R to 12, enables the material to be free to schools, teachers and parents.

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation and the SA Onderwys Unie (SA Teachers’ Union) also organise successful professional development courses for principals and teachers. These are among the hopeful signs and they tend to share what is, essentially, an egalitarian ethos, a belief that people not only can, but should, actively involve themselves in the management of their own lives.

Which brings to mind an old slogan: Educate, organise — agitate (for true transformation). In other words: the answer may be for people to actively and constructively involve themselves in the management of their own lives, to rally to the banner of the Bill of Rights.