A POSITIVE, CONSTRUCTIVE VISION FOR TRANSFORMATION IN SOUTH AFRICA'S SCHOOLS
5 FEBRUARY 2023
Over the past nine months I have written a series of essays in which I have been very critical of the way in which the principles of Critical Race Theory have influenced South Africa’s universities and schools. Some readers might have gained the impression that I hold regressive views or that I am instinctively opposed to any and every transformation initiative.
This is far from the case.
I certainly am strongly opposed to activists who blend traditional Marxist theory with identity politics in order to impose an “oppressor / oppressed” analytical framework onto virtually every situation they encounter. This occurred during the two main catalysing events of the past decade – the Fallist movements which caused so much damage to our universities in 2015 and the Black Lives Matter movement which inspired a tsunami of so-called “anti-racism” activism in our schools in 2020.
However, transformation need not be based on Marxist principles, and I think that it is time to set out what an alternative model might look like. In this essay, I propose two concrete initiatives which schools could pursue which, I believe, would dramatically enhance each child’s personal life prospects, and would also make a major impact on transforming South Africa for the better.
One of the great disappointments – and great missed opportunities – of the past 30 years has been our failure to produce a generation of South Africans who are genuinely fluent in many of our national languages. Sadly, most children who study Zulu, Afrikaans or Sotho to Matric leave school with a rudimentary knowledge and are barely able to conduct the most basic of conversations.
Compare this to the situation in Europe where children can typically speak three or four languages fluently at a relatively young age. Consider, for example, Novak Djokovic, a Serbian tennis player who reportedly can speak 11 languages and who regularly speaks to the press in French, English and Spanish; or Max Verstappen, a Dutch Formula One racing driver who is equally comfortable speaking Dutch, German or English.
Multilingualism is not the reality across the whole of Europe. According to the English Proficiency Index, an annual report which contains the world’s largest ranking of countries by adult English skills, northern European countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Germany are regarded as having populations which have a “very high proficiency” in English. By contrast, France, Italy and Spain only have a “moderate proficiency” in English.
A great deal appears to depend on national culture and the seriousness with which different countries take learning languages. The Netherlands and Germany clearly do not tolerate mediocrity in this area. By contrast, for cultural and historical reasons, the French are almost proud of their inability to speak English well.
Another variable is surely general standards and rigour in education. I suspect that the reason South African schools are not achieving high standards in this area is largely due to the catastrophic legacy of Outcomes Based Education. This educational philosophy eschewed memorisation and standardised testing in favour of students pursuing “vague and subjective learning outcomes”. As one teacher bluntly told me, “After a couple of years, we suddenly realised that the children were not learning anything at all.” And, when it comes to learning languages, without memorisation and testing of vocabulary you are unlikely to make any real progress.
Obviously, this criticism is less applicable to many black South Africans as well as Afrikaners who have grown up speaking the language of their parents before learning to speak English. Indeed, the quality of English spoken in South Africa is very high and it is one of the country’s overlooked advantages.
My focus here is mainly on English-language South Africans – people such as myself – who through complacency and a lack of drive have overwhelmingly failed to learn to speak other South African languages at a high degree of fluency. Nevertheless, we should still be asking how many children from Zulu households take the trouble to learn Sotho and vice versa? How many Afrikaans children can speak Zulu or Sotho well? I expect the answer to these questions is “not many”. The reality is that most people hold onto their home language and then gravitate towards English whilst ignoring everything else. For a country with a cultural heritage as rich and diverse as South Africa’s, this is a very sad state of affairs.
Of course, there are exceptions: people such as the former cricket player, Lance Klusener, or the Mayor of Umngeni, Chris Pappas, who both speak Zulu very well. And then there is Motshidisi Mohono, the Supersport rugby presenter who speaks fluent Afrikaans in addition to Zulu, Sotho and English. But the fact that people are generally floored when they hear a white person speaking Zulu tells you all you need to know about the situation. Lance Klusener and Chris Pappas should not be the exception. Being able to speak Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho fluently (or, at the very least, two of those languages fluently) should be the norm. It should be the basic standard – just like every child comes out of school being able to use a pencil or tie their shoelaces.
There is a great opportunity for the head of a school (particularly a primary school) to really take the initiative here. Considering how low standards are in this area, a school which produces children who are fluent in multiple languages will really stand out from the others. And this should not take long to achieve. It is not unrealistic to imagine, in five years’ time, people being able to say:
“How can you tell that a child went to Fish Hoek Primary School / Wynberg Boys or Girls’ Primary / Laerskool Lynwood? Because he or she can speak four South African languages beautifully. Kids just come out of that school completely fluent in four languages.”
In my opinion, there is no greater gift that you could give young South Africans than to ensure that they are fluent in these languages by the time they leave school (ideally, by the time that they leave primary school). My generation inexplicably missed this opportunity, but there is no reason why current and future generations should be the same.
What I would give to be able to speak Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho fluently.
South Africa’s unemployment rate is 41%, with nearly six out of ten young people unable to find work. There are approximately 7.8 million unemployed people in our labour force. To put this in perspective, the country’s largest employer, Pick ‘n Pay, employs about 90,000 people. Sibanye-Stillwater employs 66,000 whilst Standard Bank employs 50,000. If we want to halve the number of unemployed people in South Africa, we will need to create another 40 Pick ‘n Pays or another 80 Standard Banks.
In my opinion, too often our top schools act as conveyor belts for children to become university graduates who then enter passive, service-oriented professions such as law, accounting or medicine. There is nothing wrong with this, but if we are to put a dent in South Africa’s unemployment crisis, we will need young South Africans to be a whole lot more economically dynamic. We need a generation of entrepreneurs who will start businesses that generate jobs and pay taxes.
How should we practically go about this?
The first focus must be on developing skills in the fields of technology and business. We should be placing a huge emphasis on computer coding. It is not particularly difficult, and the curriculum and resources are easily available on the Internet via websites like Codecademy. I am sure that many schools have started initiatives in this area. However, as with learning languages, I worry about the seriousness and the intensity of this training. An ambitious head of a school would demand that all children are proficient in computer coding by the age of 12.
This can be coupled with practical training on basic business skills. I wish someone had taught me how to handle SARS eFiling and the basics of how the South African tax system works. Other modules could include variable and fixed costs, risk and uncertainty, how to analyse financial performance, ways of financing a company, how to structure a loan, how to value a company, the time value of money, net present value analysis, working capital management, how to manage payroll, the basics of the King Code, corporate governance and ethics etc. Again, many of these modules are already readily available online through services such as CA Connect.
The second challenge is to inspire children. One idea would be to have the Grade 7s present on the history of various tech companies: Apple or Instagram or WhatsApp or Airbnb. Alternatively, they could profile one of the big names of South African business: Raymond Ackerman, Jeremy Ord, Mark Shuttleworth and so on.
In my opinion, the single best thing we could do would be to put the essays of Paul Graham in the hands of 12-year-olds. Graham is the founder of Y Combinator, a San Francisco-based startup accelerator that invests in very early-stage tech startups. He is also a noted essayist: How to Start a Startup, Before the Startup, and The Refragmentation are legendary articles on business and life that have inspired a generation of bright, ambitious young people to pursue careers as tech entrepreneurs.
The skills and the inspiration could come together in November each year in a week known as “Demo Week”. Teams of students should present the project which they have worked on during the year to their classmates (and perhaps to their parents), ideally by demonstrating a working prototype of their product. They should explain their project with the aim of proving that they have made something that many people actually want to use. By the time children leave high school, they could have already experienced and participated in five demo weeks.
This is similar to how things work at Y Combinator, where founders of tech companies spend three months in San Francisco developing their products and building a customer base before presenting their fledgling companies to an audience of early-stage investors. Some startups succeed and raise further funding, allowing them to hire staff and build out their products. Some are acquired by bigger companies like Google or Microsoft. Others eventually list on the stock exchange or continue life as a private company. Most fizzle out and die – but their founders come away with unique life experiences and a strong network of contacts.
Y Combinator has funded over 4,000 startups over the past 15 years, resulting in the creation of approximately $ 600 billion of enterprise value. Some of the most notable successes of the programme include Airbnb (public market capitalisation: $ 94 billion), Coinbase (public market capitalisation: $ 31 billion), and Stripe (private market value: $ 50 billion).
If you approach the head of a South African school and ask him how many billion-dollar companies have been produced by his alumni, I suspect that he will give you a puzzled look. “I am not sure, we don’t really keep track of that” he would probably say, followed by “Not many. In fact, I can’t think of any.” By contrast, ask him how many international sportsmen the school has produced, and he will proudly show you the honour boards in the school’s hall featuring long lists of alumni who have been awarded international colours.
I dream of the day when I can ask the head of a school how many tech successes her alumni have produced, and she can reply with:
“Our alumni have produced two billion-dollar companies as well as six companies which are valued at more than $ 100 million dollars. In total, these companies have produced 80,000 jobs. The names of the founders are on that board over there. All of our girls can programme by the age of 12. They have all studied Paul Graham’s 10 most popular essays. They have all studied the basic modules on management accounts, tax, finance and corporate governance. We have a demo week each November, we have strong links with a number of Silicon Valley venture capital firms and we regularly send 10 to 15 Matric girls to Y Combinator every year.”
Again – as with multilingualism – tech entrepreneurship is just not taken very seriously in our society. We certainly could do it, but we don’t, because we don’t really care. The dismal results speak for themselves. Of course, Mark Shuttleworth founded Thawte Consulting – but that was nearly 30 years ago. South Africa’s biggest tech firm – Dimension Data – was founded in 1983. That is now more than 40 years ago. Other than that, big South African successes are few and far between. And, as for Elon Musk, he achieved his remarkable success not because of South Africa but, rather, in spite of it.
I believe that South African schools should view Y Combinator as being a perfectly legitimate (in fact, an extremely prestigious) option for Matric students to pursue after leaving school. Instead of taking the normal route of studying to be a doctor / lawyer / Chartered Accountant at Wits / Stellenbosch / UCT, we should be encouraging the brightest and most ambitious Matric students to raise their sights and aim far higher. Teachers should be gathering the Grade 11s and 12s together along with their parents to propose the following:
“Get some buddies together and go to Silicon Valley. Spend a year building a startup. If you get it right, you can be a billionaire by the age of 22. If your startup fails, well, you can just come back to South Africa and do what you were always going to do at Wits / Stellenbosch / UCT. The whole exercise won’t cost you anything. The $ 500,000 (R 9 million) seed investment that Y Combinator puts into each of its startups will cover whatever costs you have. Getting into Y Combinator will be hard. They accept fewer than 1% of applicants. But it is worth a go.”
I think that it would be completely realistic for the Independent Schools Association of South Africa (“ISASA”) or the Gauteng and Western Cape Education Departments to contact partners at Y Combinator or at several of the big venture capital firms in Silicon Valley – places like Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins – and invite them to send a representative to attend a demo day in South Africa where the strongest students from a number of schools present their products and ideas. They will be able to spot talent and provide an onramp to the bright lights of Silicon Valley.
How I wish someone had introduced me to this world when I was 12 years old – even if it was just to provide me with a copy of Paul Graham’s essays. It would have changed my whole life.
History has shown that when South Africans put in place serious structures and development systems, we can achieve great things.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in rugby. We have the U16 Grant Khomo Week, Craven Week, Varsity Cup, Vodacom Cup, the Gold Cup, the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, the United Rugby Championship and so on. South African children start playing rugby barefoot at the age of five. We have talent scouts, scholarships, nutrition programmes, corporate sponsorships and TV coverage. The result is that South Africa won four of the last eight Rugby World Cups and came quite close to winning the other four.
Sadly, we have none of this for multilingualism or tech entrepreneurship. I dream of the day when you can hear groups of South African children – of all backgrounds – confidently communicating to one another in Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho. I also dream of the day when the South African economy is regularly producing new companies that create jobs and pay taxes.
This is how we can build a more dynamic and prosperous South Africa. But, unless we get serious and prioritise these things, then people like Mark Shuttleworth or Chris Pappas will remain freakish outliers: sole successes who happen once in a generation.
What I am proposing is ambitious. Achieving multilingualism and developing young entrepreneurs will take a lot of hard, unglamorous work. But considering the enormous amount of time and money that we are investing in Woke vanity projects, a great deal could be achieved simply by reallocating these resources.
Instead of running seminars on “whiteness”, “decolonisation” and “gender fluidity”, let’s rather spend that time running Zulu, Afrikaans and Sotho vocabulary competitions. Instead of encouraging children to report their teachers for committing “microaggressions”, let’s rather inspire them to become the next Brian Chesky (co-founder of Airbnb) or Patrick Collison (co-founder of Stripe). At the very least, this all sounds a whole lot more interesting than another round of seminars by Robin DiAngelo or one of her acolytes.
Of course, it would probably be far easier to just keep on talking about “cultural appropriation” and “intersectional oppression”, or telling children that there are 72 different genders. But, as I have tried to show in other essays, this road leads only to endless distrust, division and destruction. There is a better alternative that we can build – one that is not based on Marxist principles, one that appeals to the best (rather than the worst) aspects of human nature.
In short, there is a way out of the darkness and into the light – if only we reach for it.