On January 7, The Economist published a short analysis of the poor state of education for most – not all – South Africans. On various league tables, South Africans are near the bottom in educational achievement. However, there is a huge gap between the educational opportunities for white South Africans and everybody else. The Economist notes that of two-hundred black students starting school only one will do well enough to study engineering. The equivalent figure among white students is ten.
With the end of apartheid, a school system based on race has been replaced by one based on geography, and, therefore, as in the United States, by social class. Schools in poor areas receive more funding, but schools in richer areas may charge fees. Though virtually all are integrated racially, most white students attend schools of good quality, while few black children do, and they represent over 80 percent of the population, while whites are less than 9 percent. The problem is not one of funding. South Africa spends 6.4 percent of GDP on education; in the European Union, it is 4.8 percent. As I discussed in my recent book, Morning in South Africa, education is one of the largest parts of the national budget. At over 15 percent of the national budget, it is significantly larger than the allocations for defence, public order, and safety. But black educational achievement is much lower than in other African countries. For example, The Economist cites that 27 percent of South Africans who have attended school for six years cannot read, compared with 4 percent in Tanzania and 19 percent in Zimbabwe.
For The Economist, the chief culprit is the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), closely tied to the governing African National Congress and riddled with ill-discipline and corruption. The Economist cites other factors as well, ranging from the challenges of overcoming the heritage of apartheid to poor teacher training. But, the focus is on SADTU and the solutions are largely concerned with getting around the union by means of private and “collaboration” schools, the latter funded by the government but run by independent operators. Indeed, The Economist’s Criticism of SADTU recalls that of teachers’ unions in the United States.
The Economist does not address the language issue. South Africa has eleven official languages, and English is spoken as a first language by only an estimated 9 percent of the population—mostly white South Africans. By contrast, Zulu is the first language of perhaps a quarter of the population. Yet, English is the international language of business and commerce, not Zulu. This creates its own issue. Because South Africa’s primary education is conducted in eleven different languages, many Zimbweans, educated in English, are more competitive for jobs in South Africa. Language is central to ethnic identity, and in democratic, non-racial South Africa, English is not privileged over Zulu, or Afrikaans for that matter. Language and education policy, like so much else in South Africa is seen through a racial and ethnic prism. Politics is as much at play as educational policy. Yet, only when primary education is conducted in English, the language of commerce, will the majority of South Africans be prepared to work in the modern economy.