Education as a Cornerstone for Nation Building

Education as a Cornerstone for Nation Building

Address by Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital  Thandulwazi Trust Breakfast Forum: In conversation with Dr Reuel Khoza  I  30 October 2012

Nelson Mandela maintains that “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another." (Long Walk to Freedom).

Education is therefore the great leveler, the ultimate solution to the twin evils in our country, poverty and inequality. Neither of these will be addressed unless we increase employment dramatically and employment will not rise sustainably unless workers, managers and entrepreneurs are properly equipped. A modern economy grows through increased productivity, predicated on knowledge and skills.

The current situation in South Africa

  • On the face of it, much has changed for the better since  the advent democracy in 1994
    • More resources are being directed more broadly than was the case. Education is largest expenditure item in the National Budget, accounting for 21,1% of total government expenditure and 6,8% of GDP.
    • The number of schools fell by 5,9% between 1999 and 2011, but the number of teachers increased by 15,1% to 420 608 in 2011.
    • The matric pass rate has increased to 70,2% in 2011 from 62,2% in 2008 (the first year of the National Senior Certificate).
  • Unfortunately these statistics mask a significant deterioration in the quality of learners emerging from our school system
    • The rise in the matric pass rate is largely because a smaller percentage of school entrants emerge to take the exam than was the case years ago. Of all the children that started school in 2000, only 45% reached matric last year, of those 70,2% passed matric and around 25% received university exemption. Once at university, on average about 30% of students drop out in their first year and a further 20% during their second and third years.
    • There has also been a significant lowering of standards, which flatter the record.
  • It is now possible to ‘pass’ matric in some subjects with a score of 30%. Difficult for me to appreciate how this could ever be seen as a pass, having studied in a different era, when a pass meant that you had at least answered half the questions correctly.

Pegging the pass mark at 50%, which was the case when we did Matric, is a massive national exercise in raising mediocrity to the status of virtue. The nation was in fact saying to itself, it is all right for our children to know half of what they are supposed to know. A fundamental cultural difference to that of some Asian countries.

My daughter, Nkateko, told me of a Chinese Matric classmate who came to school looking morose and depressed.  Upon being asked why, she related that when she showed her Maths report with a 90% pass to her parents, they lambasted her wanting to know what happened to the 10% that make for a 100% pass.

Now pegging the pass mark at 30% for any subject is surreptitious pernicious national suicide. We are in fact saying to our children, it is fine to get by 70% ignorant of what you are supposed to know. We are effectively cultivating a culture of indolence, a culture of no regard for dedication, discipline and diligence. We are effecting subtle but devastating brain damage on a national scale. We are banishing a culture of excellence from our national psyche. It is so troglodytic it boggles the normal mind.

In addition, marks are ‘normalised’. If too many have failed then the distribution curve is simply pushed to the right, with a 40% suddenly becoming a 50% and so on. It is therefore impossible to declare any victories by looking at the figures. In a sense they are a construct rather than an objective measure of how we have done.

It is bad enough to lie to others, to cheat the world. But self-deception on a national scale is totally unpardonable. We cannot go on pursuing this delusion that we are doing well educationally as a nation and pretend to be sane.

If the statistics are suspect we then have to assess ourselves in other ways.

  • A measure of how standards are falling is the recent talk of a 4-year degree to equip students who are not adequately equipped  to cope with university.
  • International comparisons are not encouraging
    WEF – In the 2012 World Competitiveness Survey South Africa ranked 132 out of 144 countries in the category ‘Health and Primary Education’, and 84 out of 144 in the category ‘Higher Education and Training’. Even more alarming, in the sub-category ‘The Quality of Maths and Science Education’ South Africa ranks 143 out of 144 countries, with only Yemen ranked below SA and many other African countries ranked substantially better.

The world is now a neighbourhood. Globality is a reality and the globalisation process gallops apace. We must wake up to the challenge of being African and globally competitive or be left behind in the competitive race for development to our utter national detriment.

What can be done?
The recommendations of a Colloquium by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), would be a sound and solid point of departure. CDE in tandem with a McKinsey overview on schooling reform in 20 countries, opine that difficulty as it may be, with the right leadership and approach education systems can be significantly improved from almost any starting point.

Key Leverage Points include:

  • Adequate budgets are a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.
  • The quality of teaching and the attitude of teachers are a central determinant of student performance.
  • School leadership notably by principals plays a key role, especially in inspiring teachers and cultivating a culture of learning.
  • To sustain schooling reform requires a new approach to the teaching profession. Society needs to value teachers more highly, and teachers need to view their careers as a calling for nation building.
  • We have to bring back excellence in teaching
    • Proper assessment of skills – bring back the schools inspectorate and check teacher’s qualifications and capabilities regularly. It seems as though teachers unions are more concerned about the welfare of a portion of their members – those who do not bother to turn up to work and those who are unable to teach adequately, than the welfare of the rest of their membership as well as the huge body of students. By protecting teachers who cannot or will not teach, they are condemning a generation of children to a lost future. It is, quite simply, stealing.

In the words of Aristotle, “Those who educate children well are more to be honoured than parents for these only gave life, those the art of living well.” But teachers must earn this status by prioritising education, and shunning in large measure pursuit of political populism, steering clear of endorsing political leadership for reasons other than sound leadership and moral authority.

There are other Stakeholders such as parents, cultural leaders, business leaders and others in civil society who have an abiding interest in schooling reform and nation building who can be mobilised in support of good school leadership, good teaching and improved student performance.

Action plans and implementation mechanisms are more important and urgent than endless policy development and sterile pontificating on political platforms.  We need to bring back or introduce excellence in teaching; discipline and diligence in learning; through inter alia, proper curriculum design. Curriculum design should be a joint enterprise between educationists who are largely theorists and practioners in the world of work. This would go a long way in narrowing the chasm/mismatch between matriculants and graduates on the one hand and the requirements of the world of work. Teachers should perforce be properly trained and imbued with the appropriate value system for national duty as more than just conduits for information transmission.

Cadre deployment is intrinsically downright wrong and toxic; discriminatory and fundamentally counterproductive. It should be comprehensively condemned and done away with. But education is one arena where this venomous practice should not feature at all. Meritocracy should be the only guiding principle… It should reign supreme.

Initiatives for those who have already left school such as the Youth Wage Subsidy should be supported so that on-the-job training can take place.

Government could have challenged the Private Sector to match these Rand for Rand to join as trusted Partners in Implementation.

A cardinal dimension so mission critical for nation building as education should be outside the confined of such party political ideological blinding practice.

Debashe’s Illustration

The following illustration by Debashe Chatterjee, author of TIMELESS LEADERSHIP is as enlightening as it is informative: “Three teachers who teach history in different schools are asked the same question: What is your present job?  The first one replies “I don’t do very much. I just teach history to school children”. The second teacher thinks a little more deeply and says “I am in the business of education”. The third teacher in response to the same question looks straight into the eyes of the questioner and in an inspired voice says, “I am shaping the destiny of the nation. I teach young minds how they can make history”.

The message, as much as appropriate choice of value orientation, is crystal clear.

It is also crucial to introduce proper assessment of skills and an appropriate reward system for teacher performance. Bring back the schools inspectorate and check teacher’s qualifications and capabilities regularly. Teacher remuneration and promotion should be performance and results based. High quality education delivery should be a national concern. By protecting teachers who cannot or will not teach, we are condemning generations of children to a lost future. It is quite frankly, the ultimate travesty of justice.


Initiatives such as Thandulwazi are an earnest attempt at corrective action. We will hear more of this later. At the heart of Thandulwazi is the belief that educational excellence is realizable, the fervent will be actualise it, and the belief in self. What I call a sense of efficacy, a cardinal subject for nation building to which I now turn our attention, briefly, before I conclude.

Need for Efficacy

Efficacy is the ability to direct and influence events, a measure of control over one’s environment and over one’s own fate. However, more important than the ability referred to, is the belief that one possesses that ability.

A sense of efficacy is not innate, one is not born with it, and it is learned. Before cognitive development, man is like an animal in that he lacks a sense of efficacy.

What does a lack of sense of efficacy mean? It means that one considers oneself subject to the elements; subject to one’s environment; subject to fate; subject to the will of others; subject to Providence. Changes in the environment are determined by forces other than self and one’s well-being is determined by the courtesy of a benign environment or the goodwill of others. Therefore, one is at the mercy of the environment and others have power over one, and what is unpardonable, one believes it is only natural that it should be so or is timidly resigned to the fact.

A people without a sense of efficacy, a belief in their ability to shape and affect their environment, consign themselves to a status barely above those of animals.

Efficacy is a product of education. It is an understanding of cause and effect and the ability to achieve rational objectives and goals. A people without efficacy are reduced to desire without an understanding of the how, much less the ability to satisfy this desire. Therefore, their existence is reduced to wishful thinking instead of purposeful action. In other instances they pursue courses of action that have no national connection with or that are contrary to their stated goals. A culture of dependency develops in such a people, a culture of poverty, a culture of no self-esteem. No dignity. No pride.

Thus we observe a people that seek and expect hand-outs, donations and alms at every opportunity. We observe a people that seek prosperity by stealing and looting. We observe a people that expect to be taught rather than to learn.  We observe a people that deprive others of the opportunity to learn and then sanctimoniously gripes about the low levels of skills and the unfair burden they carry. We see a people who expects to achieve freedom by denying it to others.  We see a people stuck to hackneyed formulae’s and positions because they have no capacity to analyse or alternatively refuse to apply reason to the challenges at hand. There is no connection in their minds between cause and effect. No efficacy.  To cap it all, they are genuinely stymied. They cannot understand why they cannot achieve their desired goals. They blame it on each other, on foreigners, on imperialism, on communism, on apartheid, on fate, on providence.

Efficacy therefore is a crucial element of empowerment because the hallmark of a person who lacks efficacy is helplessness. Efficacy is therefore very importantly a process of self-empowerment because the power we refer to is that of mastery over the environment.

It cannot be conferred upon you; it is a process of thought application – a result of education. Indeed education is a necessary ingredient of efficacy. Some achieve it early in their educational life because their cognitive skills are developed; they were taught or have learned how to think. Others develop it quite late or may never develop it despite their so-called education, because they have assimilated facts without applying thought to them. They have never been taught nor have they learned how to think. Such are many of our graduates today who upon graduation expect to be given a job, and expect to be pushed up a corporate ladder and expect success to be bestowed upon them while they passively hold their hands outstretched, palms turned upwards. They ascribe success or failure to luck or to a godfather, never to application or the lack thereof on their part.

Only in those societies that have pursued education as exemplified by the freedom of and importantly the exercise of thought, the subordination of force to reason, have they as a people empowered themselves.

May I conclude by citing John Rushkin whose conceptualisation of the purpose of education I marvel at “The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right thing, but enjoy the right things; not merely industrious, but to love industry, not merely learned but to love knowledge; not merely pure, but to love purity; not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice”.

This is unmistakably education as a cornerstone for nation building!

Education should be the national priority and treated as a national emergency. It is the only way to boost employment and to reduce inequality and poverty in our society. Thandulwazi, keep up the good work.