Fellow South Africans
I have just spent part of my morning, on Nelson Mandela Day, reading to the young learners at Bergsig Primary in Bonteheuwel. And what I saw at the school filled me with hope. The leadership at this school is an inspiration to others, and an example of what can be achieved when teachers are 100% committed to the learners in their care.
This simple act of reading to young children is one of the most important things we can do for them. Because this is how we set them up with a love for reading and an interest in books of all kinds. This is how we prepare this generation for the future. Readers are leaders, and leaders are readers.
As we pause today to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela and the enormous contribution he made to our society and our democracy, let us also consider the issues he felt strongly about. Let us reflect on the progress we have made on these issues, and where we are still lagging behind.
One of the issues that mattered most to Madiba was educating our children. We all know how he felt about education, and how he considered this to be “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.
But it is a weapon we have not deployed in South Africa. It is fair to say that we have failed, in every possible way, to prepare our children for the future thanks to a basic education system that is considered among the poorest in the entire world. No matter how you look at it – whether you consider maths results, basic literacy, matric pass rates or school drop-out rates – ours is a shameful record that does not belong in a modern democracy.
South Africa consistently languishes near the bottom of every global maths and science ranking, half our learners drop out before writing their matric exams, and almost 80% of our children still can’t read with comprehension by the time they finish Grade 4. Every year we send hundreds of thousands of young South Africans out into the world with no skills and no hope.
There are many things we must do to heal our society and save our country, but surely the most important of these is setting our children off on a path in life that offers them a future worth pursuing. It is not too late to make the changes to our education system that will enable this, but then we are going to have to be bold and urgent in our actions.
We must start by loosening the grip that SADTU has over the majority of our failed schools. We cannot allow our children to fall victim to this union’s destructive actions. Schools must be places of learning and places of safety. We need our teachers and principals to be present, to be trained and to be motivated. We need their loyalty to be with their learners.
Then we need to bring back the specialised teacher training colleges and establish a national education inspectorate to ensure that our school facilities and staff are up to standard. We must benchmark our learners to international standards, and we must review our curriculum to make sure we are keeping up with a constantly-changing knowledge economy. This also means extending the curriculum for our young learners beyond reading and maths to include subjects such as coding, because that’s how we will prepare them for a modern, digital economy.
Let us also offer parents greater choice in where to send their children. Let us introduce charter schools, and convert struggling public schools to collaboration schools. Children should always have an option of quality education where they live, rather than having to commute far on taxis and buses in order to get to a decent school.
These are some of the interventions a DA national government would immediately implement, along with an improved school feeding programme in poor communities, an eradication of all pit latrines at schools and the provision of safe transport for all learners.
If we are serious about giving our children the best start in life, then we have to turn our Basic Education around as a matter of great urgency.
But fixing Basic Education and strengthening our schools is only part of what we need to do. As parents, we have a big responsibility too. What we do at home lays the foundation for our children’s future, as much as any school curriculum does.
If we want to produce a future generation with the skills and the confidence to change the world, then we have to start at home. We have to encourage our children to read. We have to encourage them in maths and science. We must be involved and interested, right from the beginning.
Read to your small children, every night. Make use of our wonderful libraries – they truly are a treasure. Raise your children curious and questioning. And when they grow older, remain involved. Help them with their homework, stay in contact with their teachers, encourage them in their studies.
Preparing our children for a fast-changing world is not a responsibility we can simply hand over to others. It will take all of society. It takes a village to raise a child.
Leader of the Democratic Alliance