Repeating the past: SA’s annual ‘matric’ circus

Posted on January 12, 2018


South Africa last week staged the annual circus that is the announcement of matriculation results that signal end of a 12-year schooling cycle. And a circus it is, because even a cursory examination reveals the level of farce that is played out. There is, for example, no reference to the massive student dropout rate or to the fact that it now requires a bare 30% to pass.

Claims by some education officials that a matric pass is “a way out of poverty for the rural child” are also clearly nonsensical when not even half of all those under age 34 who have passed matric have permanent employment.

As a result, informed consensus is that the South African schooling system is in a mess, despite the relatively high percentage of national income spent on it. Yet what exists today is still an improvement on what went before, under apartheid.

How much of an improvement can be debated, but there can be no debate about the fact that the inequalities of the past have been de-racialised: wealth and not pigmentation is the general determinant of whether a student is offered good, bad or inadequate schooling.

But given the mess that the South African education system is in, there is nothing to be gained by pointing out that what exists today may be an improvement on the past. What is needed is a long, hard and honest look at the past in order to understand what went wrong, when, where and how.

Such a review should go beyond our borders to the greatest failed educational opportunity ever presented to a potentially anti-racist and democratic South Africa; back to the thousands of young people, many with greater initiative and commitment than most of their fellows, who decided – or were forced – to flee into exile.

This was the 1976 generation — the often proclaimed “lost generation” — who had no choice but to fight or continue to suffer academically inadequate schooling with generally purely qualified teachers in vastly under resourced schools. Those who fled persuaded an ANC newly revitalised by the rebellions on the home front to establish a school that would provide “education for liberation”.

Such a school, it was announced, would be based on the most modern, democratic principles, principles that befitted the country’s premier liberation movement. This would include none of the coercive methods of Bantu and, indeed, Christian National schooling, primarily corporal punishment. It would abolish the distinction between mental and manual labour and equip students with the motivation, academic and technical skills that would help shape a new South Africa. This was the sort of school many students dreamed of, but most of the hierarchy of the ANC saw as their model the authoritarian, strap wielding mission schools of yore.

This conflict between policy and intended practice was not evident at the time the Tanzanian government provided a large tract of land on a former sisal estate north of the town of Morogoro to house the school complex. Solidarity support poured in. On paper the Somafco project seemed marvellous. And it was something of a public relations coup: a liberation movement gearing up to prepare motivated, democratic and anti-racist students who would eventually spearhead the development of a new South Africa.

The promise was to create a school based on self-sufficiency and that would meld mental and manual labour in a co-operative and democratic environment. The project got fully underway in late 1979, but the dream was never realised. Brutal punishments were the order of the day and manual work was used as a form of punishment. The autocratic cultures of Bantu and mission school education dominated in an environment where nationalists battled for control with members of the South African Communist Party.

Teaching staff also enjoyed grossly disproportionate privileges to students and to older, long exiled ANC workers. The bulk of the manual work – including domestic labour in some staff houses – was carried out by Tanzanians. Students – representatives of the ’76 generation – often maintained that the conditions in Soweto were preferable to those in Somafco, with the result that there was a constant mood of sullen rebellion.

There are documented instances of gross abuses which still failed to “stop the rot”. And, in 1985 “the Big Stick” was ordered in to restore order.

That “Big Stick” – referred to as such by ANC president OR Tambo – was a man notorious for his brutality and abuse of women: Andrew Masondo. His tenure at Somafco eventually resulted in his removal and a commission of enquiry, the results of which have yet to be released by the ANC.

However throughout this frequently shameful period, a plethora of sound policies were formulated by ANC educationalists, usually living and working abroad. Many of the students also arrived with innovative ideas. Together, these called for a new form of education that would be needed to help a truly liberated future South Africa; it would not be good enough merely to adapt the old. Yet that is precisely what happened in an often exaggerated way.

With the ANC the governong party, the same errors continue to be perpetrated today although – at least to a fairly large extent – corporal punishment has been done away with in an atmosphere where many teachers still agitate for its return. And so we in South Africa continue reliving an educational history that the annual circus of matric results, with massaged figures, fails to hide.

Perhaps those in authority should heed the words of writer Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be and unlived. But, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Posted in: Commentary