Nearly twenty years since the end of South Africa’s political and economic segregation – once legally constituted by apartheid – the shadow of inequality continues to run deep. Correcting this wrong will require many developmental tools, and, of them, education is the most important.
South Africa suffers from a skills shortage that drives up unemployment and holds back economic growth. The shortage is a direct legacy of the decades of government policy during which the black majority (roughly 80% of the country’s population) were deliberately kept uneducated.
But almost twenty years after the end of apartheid, this discrepancy alone cannot explain the degree to which the country’s youth are struggling to receive an education. Only 11% of students receive acceptance letters to universities. Of the students that make it, one in three completes their 3-year degree after 5 years! Considering the numbers, is the education system in South Africa adequately serving its population?
In power since 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) recognized immediately that education must be the key to the country’s future as a “rainbow nation.” As a result, South Africa devotes roughly 6% of its GDP on education, one the highest rates in the world.
However, the money does not seem to be making its intended impact. The country continues to suffer from a debilitating shortage of skills. A recent study found that only 17% of South Africans get a job within a year of leaving university. While 600,000 university graduates cannot find employment, there remain 800,000 vacancies in the private sector. More than half of the population aged 18-24 are left without education, training and employment.
South Africa’s schools are failing. South Africa’s Minister of Education commented herself that up to 80% of schools are dysfunctional. Why is this so?
Insights from the Eastern Cape
Travelling the last week with my brothers up the Eastern Cape and having conversations with locals, I gained some insight to this dilemma. The Eastern Cape is among those of South Africa’s provinces most affected by this crisis. It is one of the poorest regions in the country, with unemployment sitting at 40% and thousands of residents migrating to cities with hopes of finding work each year.
It was mid-morning on a Tuesday when we passed through the little town of Butterworth. The streets were filled with young men all standing around, as if they were all waiting for something. We spoke with a few of these men, and one of them, a man named Andreas, told us his story.
“Life is hard here for us. I tried to go to Cape Town to find work, but there I found nothing. Now I’m back here. I feel bad. I am 28 and I have nothing. By now I should have a house, a cow or at least a cat,” he said with a touch of humour, yet unable to hide his frustration. Pointing at the men standing around the streets, he then said, “It’s the same for all of them. None of us have jobs.”
When asked what needs to be done, he had an answer: “We need vocational training. We need to be to be given the opportunity to be trained as plumbers, or electricians, or mechanics. Anything; we need to learn a skill.”
We then drove to rural areas in the Eastern Cape, including the rolling green hills of the Transkei, the place of Nelson Mandela’s birth. There we met a man named Soya who told us similar stories each pointing to a lack of opportunity leaving few choices but to migrate to more opportunistic cities. The state of the schools is worrisome, he said: “There are hardly any teachers here. Those that we have commute from the bigger cities, a couple of hours away, once a week, but they leave at 11am on Fridays. The kids do not learn a lot.”
Backpacking a few nights later, we met Ernest and Paul, two young black South Africans who overcame the odds to attain success in their fields. Ernest, an up-and-coming film director, told us that it is difficult to succeed, and that he recognizes a systemic problem in South Africa. “During the struggle [under apartheid] people were always told that once we had our freedom they would be sorted out. Now, almost twenty years later, they are still waiting to ‘get sorted out’ – for things to happen for them. There is, unfortunately, a widespread feeling of entitlement unique to black South Africans which is holding back their entrepreneurial spirit.”
Paul, a producer and comedian, agreed with Ernest and added, “Kids are raised in a way that engrains in them that the goal is to get a ‘job,’ rather than dreaming big.” He told us about a ten-year old boy, who he met that day, who when asked what he wants to be when he grows up replied that he wants to become a truck driver for South African Breweries (SAB), the country’s largest beer producer.
Together, Ernest and Paul are doing their bit to try to change this trend. They travel to schools whenever possible using film and performances to spread their message: “Dreams do come true.”
With its emphasis on investing in education, South Africa is on the right path towards future development – but it will take more than government spending to transform the mindset that Ernest and Paul are fighting. Addressing this issue will not be easy, but having a conversation is a good place to start.
– Elias Kühn von Burgsdorff
Both photos are credited to the author.