[lg policy] South Africa: Not the time to stand on our narrow group rights

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Nov 2 14:49:42 UTC 2015

ON THE WATER: Not the time to stand on our narrow group rights
BY NEELS BLOM, NOVEMBER 02 2015, 05:54

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IT SHOULD come as no surprise that the defenders of Afrikaans in
traditional enclaves of privilege in higher education and the students who
agitate for an exclusively English medium of instruction are equally
disingenuous, but still, it is deeply disappointing.

In the first instance, this drawn-out spat betrays a certain strategic
vacuity, which is the last thing you want from the next generation of
intellectuals. It wouldn’t matter who won the language battle, neither
party would be able to keep the peace for long. At best, the smoking ruin
they leave behind will suffer a racially polarised culture long after the
students have dropped out.

Most disappointingly, instead of maintaining the #FeesMustFall momentum by
acting in concert to resolve the issues they have in common, they are
taking the fight to each other.

Yes, getting the government to freeze fees for a while is a victory of
sorts, and free tertiary education would be lovely were it possible, but
the real issue is that the government has failed the nation in its
educational aspirations.

Consider that only 18% of matriculants make it to university. Of those,
almost half will not graduate, and of those who drop out, 50% to 60% will
drop out in their first year.

The two main reasons for that are the poor standard of basic education, in
language education in particular, and because of students’ financial
difficulties. Thus, basic education, language and poverty are linked to the
real issue: the failure to get educated.

The drop-outs will join the 600,000 other school-leavers who enter the
economy each year with no hope of being employed. It means they will not
contribute to growth, but instead remain a burden to society, thus limiting
the country’s ability to increase spending on desperately needed
developmental programmes.

As it is, South Africans between the ages 15 and 24 who are not in
employment, education or training number between 2.5-million and
4.5-million. The International Labour Organisation puts that at 52% of
young South Africans, which compares poorly internationally, notably
against that of the sub-Saharan region’s 11.8%.

For perspective, SA’s numbers have accrued after a sustained period of
economic growth, whereas international figures are based on data collected
from a global economy in recession.

What we have brewing here is a perfect storm that has already been whipped
up to a near-catastrophic velocity. If we don’t fix it soon, we may never
get out of trouble. Obviously, no matter what, basic education has to be
turned around, but even if we managed to introduce appropriate policies
from today, it would take about 20 years to bear fruit as the next
generation progresses to tertiary levels.

In the meantime, the only way the state will collect enough tax to pay for
the long-term turnaround is to prepare university students and students in
further education and training as well as we can. If that means language
policy at all institutions, basic and higher, has to be changed, then that
is what the government must do.

And if the change is to have any near-term effect, education at all levels
will have to be in English. Most South Africans will resent such a policy
and my fellow Afrikaans speakers will probably kick up the biggest fuss,
but even if we don’t like it we have to accept that English is a world
language and we need to play on the world stage. It is so that we all have
a constitutional right to be educated in our own language, but this is no
time to stand on our rights.

If SA is to survive and thrive, we the South African people have to rise
above our narrow group interests.


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