Education as liberation

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ImageEducation 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

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