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Education as a catalyst for socio-economic development in South Africa

28 Feb 2018

In order to progress socially and economically, a united South Africa will have to focus on an education sector hindered by apartheid era policies

South Africa faces several challenges socially and economically. The South African economy is in transition; workers are moving from the mining and agriculture industries to the service industry. However, the country has been plagued by low labour productivity. South Africa is also among the lowest ranking nations in terms of mathematics and science. Racial inequalities persist, and the lack of economic growth has led to greater social instability.

Many young people lack access to employment opportunities and are consequently mired in poverty. Human resource development had been stunted by the Bantu education system established during apartheid. Kgalema Motlanthe, the former President of the Republic of South Africa, feels that investing in education is the first step to addressing the country’s problems.

Speaking at a recent Presidential Distinguished Lecturer Series hosted by SMU, Motlanthe is adamant that “education remains the greatest equaliser in the history of modern society”. He believes that South Africa can create the conditions to build a better world by strengthening relationships with other countries.

“As the case of Singapore demonstrates, science and technology are the sine qua non for modernisation,” he asserts. “Through partnerships and collaborations among our two nations and others, exchanging knowledge, expertise and skills… we have a unique opportunity to lift our nations to a higher trajectory of social development.”

Burdens of history

In South Africa, the barriers to progress have to be understood through its remarkable historical context. Quoting Winston Churchill, Motlanthe expressed the desire to learn from the past: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see”. South Africa was colonised by Europeans who wanted to establish a port along important trade routes. After settling in the country, indentured labourers were brought in from India, as the self-sufficient natives did not want to perform agricultural work for the Europeans. The prevalent slave trade also saw the arrival of slaves from other parts of the continent to work in whited-owned farms and plantations.

In 1948, the Afrikaans, Dutch Africans, from the nationalist party gained political power and elevated racism to another level. Apartheid, segregation along racial lines, was instituted. South Africans were divided into four categories. White Europeans made up the ruling class. The second category comprised the descendants of Indian indentured labourers. The third category consisted of mixed-race people labelled as coloured; they were mostly the descendants of slaves from Malaysia, Angola, Madagascar, and the indigenous segment of South African people called the San and the Khoikhoi. Lastly, black Africans constituted the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were classified by race, prohibited from intermarriage and forced to live in designated areas.

The government subverted the power of schooling and turned it into a tool of institutionalised discrimination. The Bantu education system was used by the Europeans to subjugate other races. Its curriculum was designed to indoctrinate students into accepting inequality. The erstwhile minister of native affairs, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, proclaimed that it was a waste of time to teach mathematics to a black child because blacks were to be trained to become no more than hewers of wood and drawers of water.

By the time apartheid was abolished following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, the education system was “trapped in a vicious cycle, where both the teachers and the learners lack the requisite knowledge and skills”, described Motlanthe. “It does not strain the imagination to realise that any society floundering in its education system will also not fare well in terms of employment and activity with its economic development bearing the brunt thereof.”

The goal of the restructured education and training sectors was to improve matric qualification (high school diploma) with a heavy emphasis on science. Motlanthe explained: “From the development of flint stone tools millions of years ago, to the emergence of industrial revolution in the 1700s, science and technology as well as innovation have been the prime motor of history.”

Setting the right course

Governments have to ensure policies pertaining to education and job creation are aligned. Motlanthe believes that promoting education is a priority: “Progress in moving the country out of the doldrums is predicated on investments in science and technology, from the basic education level all the way to tertiary institutions. We have to equip the coming generation with the necessary tools to launch society into fully fledged modernity.

“Only a sound and quality education system with strong emphasis on mathematics and science can serve as a reliable feeder of tertiary institutions which will in turn be able to produce top-notch graduates geared to the needs of the country.”

In addition, Motlanthe looks to universities to assist in building a meritocratic society. “Given the structural nature of our problems,” he elaborated, “especially in the area of education and skill space, we look to the higher education sector to rise to the challenge of human resource development and to count itself among social forces leading the charge for social change. Social progress into becoming a just and prosperous society will only see the light of day if, and only if, it is fertilised by economic growth, which is in turn driven by education.”

More than any social force, universities are well positioned to contribute to South Africa's competitive and knowledge based economy. Tertiary learning institutions are critical drivers of social and economic development. They have to promote innovation to increase the growth rate of the economy and employment. To meet the needs of the nation, universities also have to increase enrolment levels to 30 percent by the year 2030, he argued.


A strong education sector will bode well for the collective future of South Africans. Motlanthe shares his optimism: “Our improvement as a nation, the equalisation of society and our future all hinge on the quality of our system of education. It is a symbiotic relationship where education encourages social development which in turn allows for resources to be released in order to further enhance the quality of education.”


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Last updated on 28 Feb 2018 .


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