South Africa’s education system is still fundamentally unequal, despite the Constitution affording everyone the basic right to education, says law professor Pierre de Vos.
Speaking in PSG’s latest Think Big webinar, de Vos noted inequality that exists within South Africa’s education system is not only a problem that affects and concerns the poor but has far-reaching effects on every segment of society.
De Vos is the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance and an expert on Constitutional Law. He is currently the chairperson of the Board of the Aids Legal Network and is a Professor at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Public Law.
He argues that the problem that lies at the heart of the South African education system is not one of ‘quality’ but one of ‘inequality”. De Vos made reference to the growing chasm that exists between the education system that serves the South African middle-class and the experience of poor communities.
He said that unequal opportunities in education are simply unsustainable, and are a reality characterised by the fact that 30% to 40% of South Africans do not have access to proper education, and by extension, jobs, while 5% to 10% of society pays the majority of income tax. These injustices, De Vos argues, are at the centre of our country’s political instability.
A shift is needed
Highlighting specific issues in South Africa’s education system, De Vos noted that an overarching sense of elitism exists, which favours a ‘certain kind of education’ over education in technical fields.
He noted that the government’s move to introduce specialist subjects such as agriculture and maritime studies into the national curriculum is a step in the right direction in addressing this.
“Interventions of this nature will go a long way in catering for a broader range of learners with special aptitudes that have historically been overlooked. This ‘second stream’ of education will finally help in producing people with the expertise that the country actually needs.”
For De Vos, the notion of inequality also applies to the hierarchical way of thinking that values academic knowledge over pragmatic application. He said that academic proficiency is just one part of what education represents.
“In the legal system for example, ‘softer skills’ like the ability to reason, independent and critical thinking, and the ability to conduct research are cornerstones of what it takes to be effective as a legal professional.”
De Vos said there is also a need for multilingualism at both school and university levels.
“The problem lies in the fact that we see indigenous languages as something we need to shy away from in the professional world. However, in a country with 11 official languages, those who only speak English and Afrikaans are at a deficit. Multilingualism should therefore be something we see as a significant advantage at the level of schooling.”
However, De Vos cautions South Africans against the belief that a ‘quick fix’ like a curriculum change will solve an issue that is notoriously complex.
“When implementing new policies, we need to realise that the issues we face cannot be divorced from our unique political history, so context is key. When we accept the politicised nature of education in South Africa, we can begin to unravel some of the long-standing intricacies of the problem.”