The following remarks were delivered today by Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader, Mmusi Maimane, at Lotanang Primary School in Polokwane, Limpopo. The Leader was joined by DA Limpopo Provincial Leader, Jacques Smalle, and DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Basic Education, Nomsa Marchesi.
Today, across the country, we remember the life and sacrifice of our first democratic President and the father of our nation, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. But if we are to truly honour his legacy, then we have to go beyond our symbolic 67 minutes of service on this day. We must fight, every day, for the values he stood for.
One thing that mattered to him more than anything else was looking after our children and preparing them for a better future through education. But judging by the way our children fare in international benchmark studies like the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), it is clear that our government has turned its back on young South Africans.
By failing our children in education, the ANC is betraying the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
The PIRLS test measures literacy in Grade 4 children, and this is significant because it is in the Foundation Phase – Grades 1 to 3 – that children must learn to read with comprehension. From Grade 4 onwards, as school work becomes more complex and the subjects increase, it is essential that they have this skill. They must learn to read before they can read to learn.
Our results in these studies are shameful. According to the most recent PIRLS study, only one in four South African children in Grade 4 can read with sufficient comprehension. 78% of our children cannot read for meaning in any language. They have fallen so far behind by age ten that they are unlikely to ever catch up. Of the 50 countries tested, South Africa came last.
And when you look at the results across different provinces, it is even more damning. Here in Limpopo, a staggering 91% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning, and it’s not much better in provinces like the Eastern Cape (85%) and Mpumalanga (83%). Compare this with the Western Cape (55%) and it becomes clear that not only are we failing to prepare our children for the future, but we are also condemning children from certain provinces to a life with precious few prospects. Make no mistake, 55% in the Western Cape still isn’t good enough by a long shot, but it is significantly better than anywhere else.
PIRLS is a comprehensive, nationally representative study. In 2016 it tested almost 13,000 children from 293 schools. Importantly, it tested in all South African languages. And it is in our African languages – Sepedi (93%), Setswana (90%), Tshivenda (89%), isiXhosa (88%), isiZulu (87%) and isiNdebele (87%) where our children fare worst. This is how the legacy of Apartheid is entrenched across generations.
In the most recent TIMSS study, which tests maths and science after Grades 4 and 8, we fared no better, ranking second-last out of 48 countries tested for maths in both these grades and last for science after Grade 8. We didn’t participate in the Grade 4 science test. This is an appalling indictment on the delivery of basic education in this country.
If Mandela Day should remind us of one thing, it is how far we have fallen short in preparing our children for the future. We all know Mandela’s well-known quote where he said: “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. But if we are not prepared to arm our children with this weapon, we cannot claim to be upholding the Mandela legacy.
There are many things we must fix in our schools. These include keeping our children safe, making sure those on school feeding programmes are fed, providing scholar transport for those who need it and providing all the reading books, work books and text books these children need. But the most important steps we must take immediately to ensure that our children – and particularly those in the Foundation Phase – don’t fall behind are the following:
- Ensuring that all teachers are qualified to teach their subjects. This means getting a clear picture of the qualification of all our teachers, and urgently upskilling those who fall short.
- Ensuring that teachers are present to teach. This means curbing the destructive influence of SADTU and declaring certain aspects of teaching an Essential Service.
- Reducing classroom overcrowding. Adequate individual attention in the Foundation Phase is key to learner progress. This means not only creating sufficient teaching posts at all schools, but also ensuring a steady supply of qualified teachers as well as filling all the posts where they are available.
Our failed education is part of a system that locks black children out of opportunity. If we don’t change this system, these boys and girls will forever be left poor.
We must rescue our children from the fate this ANC government has condemned them to. Our future, as a nation, depends on it. But this will not happen if we continue to let SADTU hold our schools to ransom and deprive our children from their right to a quality education.
Until we do so, our symbolic gestures on Mandela Day will ring hollow.