South Africa’s Failing Grade

This year’s parliamentary elections in South Africa will be the first in which the first children born after the 1994 transition to democracy become eligible to vote. Glibly dubbed “born-frees,” these children have been dealt vastly different fates in the years since the dismantling of apartheid, calling into question South Africa’s constitutional promise of equality.

Wealth has given some the privilege of a good education. The rest, mostly poor black students, have been corralled into what Steve Biko, the murdered anti-apartheid activist and founder of the country’s black consciousness movement, once described as lives of perpetual servitude.

The country’s two-tiered education system — a functional one for the wealthy and a dysfunctional public system for poor blacks — is to blame.

There are some excellent schools in the public system, but they are exceedingly few, and many are government schools that, under apartheid, were reserved for white children. Historically, these schools have been provided with better resources and gaining entry to them is now expensive and fiercely competitive. They mostly admit students from the affluent, disproportionately white communities in which they are located.

Meanwhile, those wealthy enough to opt out send their children to private schools, which prepare them for different final exams. In 2013, 85 percent of these students attained grades good enough to attend university.

Earlier this month, amid much fanfare, the country’s basic education minister released results of the final public school exams. She announced that 78 percent of those who took the exams in 2013 had passed. However, only 31 percent passed with grades good enough to have the option of a university education. The rest have no other alternatives but to go to technical colleges, enter the job market or attempt to defy nearly impossible odds and try to succeed as entrepreneurs — without any capital, experience or support.

For these students, the national high school certificate is a qualification that looks increasingly like it is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

An increasing number of employers and institutions of higher education have begun to mistrust the high school certificate. They believe it provides only a weak indication of skills, knowledge and abilities. And the state exams do not allow students to show employers what they actually know and the fields in which they excel. To further exacerbate the desperate situation many young people face, employers, institutions of higher education and the government have responded with a mix of casual disregard, well-intentioned actions with perverse effects and populist policies.

In 2005, an additional set of optional standardized national tests — the national benchmark tests — were introduced. Conceived by Higher Education South Africa, a government-funded association of the country’s 23 public universities, the new tests were ostensibly created to provide universities with information on what kind of additional academic support students needed to bridge the gap between the poor high school education they’d received and the unrelenting demands of university studies. The tests are priced low enough to make taking them a no-brainer for well-off students. For many poorer students, however, paying the testing fee or traveling to testing centers is prohibitive.

Employers, meanwhile, have not changed their hiring practices much, or adjusted their training and skills-development programs, for which they receive incentives from the state. Many simply put out the same ads for interns and entry-level workers as they always have, then complain about the quality of resumés and application letters they receive, or the apparent lack of a good work ethic on the part of the few young people they hire.

These employers complain without recognizing that behind almost every unimpressive resumé and job application is a first-time worker in need of intensive training and development — a young person let down not by his or her lack of ability or lack of interest in exercising the care and diligence required to get and hold onto a job, but by an inferior public school system that has prepared them poorly for life.

What employers and higher education institutions are tacitly saying here is that this is not their problem.

Instead of responding with policies to address these problems, like reforming the final exam system so it actually tells employers what students know, the government has bowed to public sentiment and pressure from opposition parties. Last year, it enacted a populist youth employment incentive aimed at reducing the cost to companies of hiring first-time workers. The outcry over youth unemployment has since diminished, yet the problem remains. Even the most generous projections say the measure will not make a significant dent in the youth unemployment rate, which, including those who’ve given up looking for jobs, stands at a staggering 65 percent for those under 25.

For now, the government is congratulating itself on an increasing pass rate on the final national exam. Left unsaid is that the students of the class of 2013 who took the final exam were part of a cohort of 1.2 million who entered school in 2002. The nearly 700,000 students not included in the celebrated statistics — now members of a growing lost generation — were either held back or ejected from the system before the final exam, the vast majority between grades 9 and 11.

They, too, face a grim future.

Because of its inability to provide quality public schooling for all, the government finds itself saddled with the biggest failing of post-apartheid South Africa. While apartheid’s legal mechanisms may have been dismantled, apartheid continues in the classroom and the job market.

T.O. Molefe is an essayist, at work on a book on post-apartheid race relations.

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