The Education Crisis and the Politics of Contempt

By Richard Pithouse · 25 Jan 2012

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Picture credit: Phil @ Delfryn Design
Picture credit: Phil @ Delfryn Design
In 1987, in the midst of a Cape Town winter, Jeremy Cronin wrote a poem about being on the run under the state of emergency, his picture on the walls of the police stations that still squat, square and fenced, across the country like forts on the borderlands of some incompletely subdued colony. The poem speaks of the “snuffling soul” of his newborn son as he stretches out his fist in the afterglow of the timeless pleasure of an infant at the breast. “In the depths of their emergency”, Cronin wrote, this fist became his flag:

Raised up to say
This is a people's war

We shall wage it
As people.

Any politics that posits some transcendent ideal beyond the realm of life as it is actually lived by actual people - be it socialism, the free market, technocratic expertise, a religious ideal or nationalism - is going to end up as an alibi for doing real damage to real people in the name of an imagined greater good.

No flag, be it painted red, black, green or in the colours of the nation or the faithful, can substitute for the immediate recognition of the full and equal humanity of all people. And there is often a sense that equality is most easily recognised in children. Every child that, in the words of Pablo Neruda, another communist poet, “leaps into life” fresh from the love, “the most immemorial on earth”, that brings most babies into childhood, could, we like to imagine, grow up to reinvent physics, jazz, football or anything at all. But in a world that is structured in inequality and exclusion our lives are set ever more firmly on particular paths as they unfold. For most of us possibilities shrink as time passes and the prospects for realising equality in practice diminish.

The sense that each child comes into this world as a living, sucking, shitting link to the transcendent is part of the reason why, when the cameras are rolling, even the most reptilian politicians feel the need to purse their scaly lips and smear a little spittle on the soft skin of the nearest baby. But those same politicians will often respond to the children of the poor as an outrage to decency and a threat to society when they begin to approach adulthood.

The girls are presented as promiscuous and lazy, as wanting to raise their children by leeching off the state. The boys are made to appear as a malevolent criminal force lurking in the shadows beyond the bright world of virtuous wealth. The teenager who asserts, with Frantz Fanon, a desire “to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help to build it together” is likely to get, literally or metaphorically, a slap in the face. All of this becomes particularly acute in societies where the rich can racialise the poor.

Education is routinely spoken of as the royal road towards enabling the potential of every child to reach its full flower. But in reality most education systems, across time and space, take the form of an attempt to, in Hendrik Verwoed's words, “train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.” Most education systems train some children to grow up to rule and others to be ruled. Most education systems train some children to grow up to be at home in the corridors of power and others to be at home in the factory, the laundry, the prison or, increasingly, the endless waiting around for odd scraps of work.

Apartheid racialised the ancient idea that the children of the rich should be given a different education to the children of the poor. The struggle against apartheid declared, in the ringing phrase of the Freedom Charter, that the doors of learning and culture would be opened to all. But everybody knows that the reality is that the zones of educational privilege have been opened to all who can pay while the zones of educational exclusion have been left to rot.

The statistics that mark the full extent of just how bad things are, and how far we are behind countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe, are incredible. For instance only 38% of the children that started school in 2000 passed matric in 2011. And only one in five of that cohort passed maths in a system where the pass mark is 30%. Millions of our children are being sentenced to life at the outer margins of the global economy.

The problem is not, as is still widely assumed, a question of efficiency or capacity. Neither the state nor the politicians astride it were inefficient when stadiums had to be built in time for the World Cup. If the state really wanted to ensure that every school had qualified teachers, electricity, water, libraries, laboratories, sports fields and textbooks they could easily achieve all of this. The real problem is one of political will, which means, in plain English, one of sheer contempt.

There are certainly people in positions of real power in the ANC that, like Aaron Motseledi, are obviously committed to building a state that is subordinated to the interests of society as a whole. And there are, as with the recent ban on using rubber bullets against protesters, ANC hands that are lodged into the holes that are bursting open along the Constitutional dyke that holds back the surging swells on the gathering desire to transform the state into a more effective means of containing the poor and lessening the restrictions on the rich in and around the ruling party.

But the reality, the unquestionable reality, is that the dominant currents in the ANC hold the majority of us in gross contempt. They build transit camps and shoddy little RDP houses in the middle of nowhere, deny schools a resource as fundamental as books, instruct the masses to raise their fists as the leaders taste the champagne of freedom on their behalf and send out the police to beat dissent back into submission.

The knee jerk elite response to the failures of our education system is to demonize teachers in general and SADTU in particular. There is no doubt that SADTU has real control over the appointment and promotion of teachers in some schools and that this power is not always exercised in the interests of the children in these schools. In some schools SADTU functions more like a mafia than the progressive trade union that it claims to be and COSATU, the only part of the ruling alliance that can credibly claim any progressive orientation, has not developed the political courage to face up to the toxic aspects of SADTU.

But while SADTU and individual teachers must be confronted when this is necessary, the general demonization of teachers misses the fact that many are deeply committed and achieve remarkable things in the midst of the structural abandonment of many poor schools by the state. It also misses the fact that when the state does engage teachers, it has often done so by imposing unworkable new plans and policies on them without any real support and in a manner that fundamentally undermines their ability to be competent at their work.

The desire to strip teachers of the ordinary rights of citizens, including the right to unionise, most recently expressed by Andile Lungisa of the ANC Youth League - an organisation that represents the most predatory and authoritarian faction of the ruling alliance - is rooted in a desire to blame teachers for structural problems and to turn schools into a system for producing docile citizens and obedient workers.

The political will to sort out our education system will not come through another new policy or a clever consultant with new jargon on a fancy PowerPoint presentation. If it comes at all it will come through a mass refusal to accept an education system that is sentencing millions of our children to lifelong economic exclusion.

If there is going to be a serious attempt to sort out the mess in our schools it will have to start by affirming and supporting what is working in the midst of contempt and against its logic – with the many teachers, parents and children that bring real commitment to education into and around our schools.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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