By Gavin Davis
In the background of the student protests stand the silent majority – young, mainly black, South Africans deprived of a decent basic education in a democratic South Africa. Many don’t finish school, let alone university. If the student movement is a fuse, this silent majority may well be the powder keg.
Many people warned the government about an impending student fees crisis, including a ministerial committee chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet the government was caught flatfooted by the conflagration that engulfed universities, Parliament and the very seat of its power at the Union Buildings over the last fortnight.
The government’s knowledge of the coming crisis, and lack of will to do anything about it, tells us a great deal about the state of our democracy. It shows what happens when a governing party is unresponsive to the needs of its citizens, secure in the belief that it will be returned to power no matter how badly it governs.
It is utterly confounding to see leaders of the student protest movement draped in African National Congress colours as they march on the party’s headquarters at Luthuli House. They seem oblivious to the idea that blind electoral loyalty to the governing party, regardless of its performance in government, is the very reason it has failed them.
If people want a responsive government, they need to use the power of their vote to put it under pressure. Otherwise, the only way to get the government to act will be through riots, shutdowns and protest. This is not what the struggle for democracy was about.
In a functioning democracy, it is incumbent on the government to gauge and process all pressing societal demands, not just the demands of those who shout loudest. Few interest groups are as organised and as vocal as the students have been. As a result, it can take years for some crises to manifest themselves as conspicuously as the university-funding crisis has in the last few weeks. By then, it is often too late.
Indeed, as unfashionable as it may sound, there is a crisis brewing that is far graver than affordable university fees. And that is the failure of our school system to give every child access to a quality basic education.
Far from engaging in mass protest, South Africa has been lulled into a sense of complacency when it comes to the quality of schooling. Every year, the Matric pass rate is celebrated and easy victories are claimed. Statistics indicating near-universal access to basic education are held up as proof of a good story to tell. The comparatively well-run Department of Basic Education and level-headedness of Minister Angie Motshekga go some way towards reassuring the nation that everything is on track.
But we know, deep down, that something is very, very wrong with our school system.
Those who finish school with marks good enough to get into university can count themselves among the fortunate few. Of the total number of pupils who entered Grade 1 in 2003, only 36% passed the National Senior Certificate in 2014, and just 14% qualified for admission to a university degree.
Meanwhile, the 86% who didn’t make it to university are struggling to find work. According to the latest South Africa Survey, the unemployment rate among those whose highest level of education is Matric stands at 33.2%. By contrast, the unemployment rate for those with a degree is much less at 7.6%.
On top of this, despite a steady increase of black students into universities over the last two decades, deep racial inequalities persist. Only 12% of black South Africans and 14.3% of coloureds enter higher education, compared to 58.5% of whites and 51% of Indians. Education analyst Nic Spaull notes that less than 1 in 200 black children who enter Grade 1 go on to pass Matric with marks high enough to study mathematics or science at university.
The uncomfortable reality is that, if you are a black child born into a poor household, the odds of getting into university and building a rewarding career are stacked very firmly against you. The Statistics South Africa report on youth unemployment released last year found that, in comparison to other races, the proportion of black youth in skilled employment actually regressed between 1994 and 2014. Launching the report, the statistician-general said black youths between the ages of 25 and 34 “lost out in acquiring skills through the 20-year period and that is the crux of the issue of youth unemployment”.
If the student movement is a fuse, the powder keg may well be the silent majority of young, black South Africans who leave school with little prospects of finding a decent job. The question is how long it will take for the simmering discontent to explode and, when it does, whether it will lead to a peaceful, democratic alternation of power or not.
A responsive government in a functioning democracy would act to defuse the crisis in basic education, before it is too late. Nobody should tolerate an education system that hands down the inequities of apartheid from one generation to the next. Our government does so at its peril.
Gavin Davis MP is the DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education. This article was first published in The Daily Maverick on 27 October 2015.