Education as liberation


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Education has long been a focal point of struggle in South Africa: the 1976 Soweto uprising, which set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the end of apartheid, was led by schoolchildren. In the 1980s, the contribution of youngsters to the liberation struggle took a starker turn: ‘No Education before Liberation’ became the watchword of many.South Africa’s school kids marched again in 2011 – 15,000 of them gathered on that country’s Human Rights day at Cape Town’s open air parade to call for the right of all to a quality education. Even though it was a public holiday, the kids showed up, dressed in school uniforms, sweltering in summer heat. They assembled at the urging of an NGO, Equal Education; almost no teachers were present.

The rally was deeply moving – not least because of how far South Africa’s education system has yet to go. Public spending on education is both high as a share of national income and equitably distributed. Yet average performance in international standardized tests rates below Kenya (which has a per capita national income one eighth that of South Africa), and only marginally better than that of Malawi (one twentieth the per capita national income).   The march was an expression of far more than a call to fix a still-broken education system. It was an expression of hope in the possibility of a better life. Hope in the prospects of realizing South Africa’s middle class dream. The kind of hope that Elinor Ostrom and other social scientists (see my previous post) identified as key to democratic sustainability.

South Africa’s black middle class, whose emergence has been a signal achievement of the government of the African National Congress, is a political force to be reckoned with. But for the younger generation, this middle class dream takes on a distinctive form: it is tantalizingly visible, hugely attractive, and while plausible, enormously uncertain. In this hugely unequal country, the black middle class remains relatively small. But disparity has also created enormous opportunity. Studies point to exceptionally high rates of return from post-secondary school education. A 2009 study found that 25-29  year old black African males who have completed some tertiary education are two to three times as likely to be formally employed as counterparts with less than a high school education – and, given a job, their earnings are likely to be three-times (for  a diploma) to five-times (for a university degree) as high! Without a high school diploma, average monthly pay for this age cohort is US$200; with a university degree, it is close to US$1,000.

For a new generation to realize these opportunities the doors need to be opened wide so that black South Africans with the requisite education can move into white collar jobs – and the economy needs to remain healthy. On both counts, the country’s political leadership has delivered. It has put in place strong affirmative action policies to foster black economic empowerment. It also has maintained sound and rule-bound economic management, which has assured a continuing flow of economic opportunities – with the imperatives of good economic management acting as a (partial) restraint on political and bureaucratic rent-seeking.  

But there is also a third challenge – building a school system capable of helping a new generation of students reach the post-secondary level. And, as the test scores summarized earlier in this piece show, this has proven to be more difficult.  Focusing the mind of the country’s leaders on this challenge was the purpose of the Cape Town march. 

It is, of course, a huge – and unwarranted – leap to suggest that because 15,000 school children were willing to put on their school uniforms and march downtown on a hot summers day, South Africa’s democracy is fundamentally healthy. The country’s appalling inequality reminds one on a daily basis that there is no cause for complacency. I’ll explore this issue in a future post.

But, for now, the fundamental point is enough: Cape Town’s Human Rights Day march can be interpreted an expression of hope that the prospects of a better life remain in view; it reflects the power of the ‘middle class dream’ as a buttress of democracy. But it can also be understood as a challenge, a signal that a new generation expects leaders who had brought liberation from apartheid to deliver results for them too… and that, if the system fails them, they will not remain silent.


Brian Levy

Professor at SAIS and University of Cape Town

Join the Conversation

May 17, 2011

Brian: An inspiring story, that leaves me with one question: If the (private) rates of return you cite from secondary and higher education are so high, why does the government have to provide or finance this education? There may be social returns over and above these private returns, but even with these private returns, we would see private schools cropping up everywhere. That we don't observe this in South Africa may mean that public provision and financing keeps the private sector out. Why doesn't South Africa experiment by giving families vouchers that they can use to send their kids to either public or private schools? Experience with education vouchers, in Colombia and Bangladesh, show that they can work, even in countries with weak capacity. Regards, Shanta

David Throup
May 19, 2011

I found these very interesting. I think you are right to identify the
middle class and access to education as the key determinants of
stability - and when thwarted of instability. Egypt and Tunisia prove
the point perfectly. If you are correct, then on the education front
I'm not sure that the future looks good for Sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya
can't generate 750,000 jobs a year to provide employment to its school
leavers and graduates; you now have increasing graduate unemployment
in such success stories as Ghana and Botswana, let alone South Africa.
Despite SSA's more democratic institutions than in the Middle East, I'm
not sure that rising expectations won't overwhelm the changes in
demographic structure and higher growth rates. It's a race against
time and will prove "a damn close run thing". Job creation and
enlargement in scale and institutionalization of the informal sector
may satisfy school leavers but not university graduates. And it will
be the latter who provide the intellectual leadership of discontented
youth as we can see in Cote d'Ivoire and the lumpen youth militias of
Nigeria. A reprise of late 19th century Russian Anarchism might prove
a likely scenario or alternatively more grist to Al Qaeda? Can
sufficient endogenous growth be generated to head this off? More
depressing thoughts than your's, I fear.

Brian Levy
May 24, 2011

Thanks to both Shanta and David for their comments.

To take Shanta's issue first: South Africa, it turns out, has very 'empowering' enabling legislation through the South African Schools Act (SASA. SASA makes it very straightforward to establish private schools -- and, indeed, there has been a proliferation of them....not only schools serving elites, but also less expensive schools for parents more in the middle of the income distribution. (Revealingly,teachers in the public schools quite often send their kids to private schools.) But this is no solution for parents that lack the resources to pay -- and/or for kids whose parents are not willing to pay. How, then, to go further? One option, as per Shanta, is to give families vouchers. A second option -- one which robust research has shown can often be effective -- is to leverage the strong formal authority SASA gives to School Governing Boards (the majority of whose members are, by law, parents), and empower these Boards with better information on performance, and knowledge and support to make use of their formal authority. Both options can be effective. While both will face political obstacles, my sense is that a focus on school governing boards is more likely to get traction in the short- and medium term than advocacy for vouchers.

Turning to David: he raises the dilemma as to what might be the political consequences when a school system structurally produces more graduates than the economy can absorb. David highlights especially the impact on the polity of more university graduates. Viewed from a narrowly South African (middle-income) lens, the risk he points to currently is not large -- there continues to be a very large excess demand (indicated in the wage premiums I describe in my post) for university graduates. But the risk may be much larger in low income settings, where the formal economy is much less developed. Reflecting on this post, it points, I think to the need for us to think much more systematically (and honestly) than we have about the challenges associated with sustaining democracy in low-income countries. Comparative data developed by Adam Pzreworski and associates in their book Democracy and Development (2000) points to much more back-and-forth between authoritarianism and democracy in this group than we like to acknowledge. I plan to explore this further in a later post.