On Saturday, I attended TedxSoweto, an independent TED conference focused on solutions to close the wealth gap in Africa. Before I spend this post bemoaning the state of the South African education system, I want to take a moment to acknowledge how incredible it is that Soweto was the site of a conference affiliated with the internationally renowned TED organization. The South Western Townships, or Soweto for short, were the site of massive uprisings during apartheid, which resulted in massacres of the residents and violent repression by the Afrikaans government. To drive safely through Soweto, to witness self-governing communities, and to attend a well-organized conference in an immaculate new theatre there made the progress since the abolition of apartheid real for me.
Yet, huge inequality persists here, and it “is in part down to the government’s failure to educate young South Africans, particularly black ones.” Last month, the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa 140 of 144 countries in terms of educational quality. The Department of Basic Education’s own statistics show that only 15% of sixth graders are proficient in literacy and only 12% are proficient in math, according to national tests. Educational inequity is at the heart of South Africa’s imminent failure, because it contributes to high unemployment rates, skill deficits, and the yawning gap between the rich and poor. The South African wealth gap has actually widened since apartheid ended in 1994.
South Africa is standing on a burning platform, a business term meaning a situation (crisis) that forces radical change in an organization. Or better yet, according to Forbes, “We’re in big trouble.” South African citizens- from business people to teachers to worried parents- are feeling the pain and many are attempting to put out the fire. A parent who toured our school last week told me how desperate she is to find high quality, affordable education for her child. She told me that she is considering turning down an opportunity to move back to her native Zimbabwe in favor of remaining in Johannesburg so that she can send her child to our school. She would rather maintain her child’s place in our school, because spots in great schools are so rarely available, than to risk moving home, despite the chance to reunite with her family.
Her sacrifice is admirable, yet heartbreaking. In the grand scheme of things, her sacrifice is just a fraction of the effort that will be needed to rescue South African children as the platform burns. Spark Schools, the network of low fee private schools where I work, will only be able to expand so far in its mission to close the South African achievement gap. What we need here is a commitment by the ANC government and Jacob Zuma to encourage political and economic competition that will yield the creative solutions needed to put out the fire.
For the Kids,