Just when you’ve thought you’ve made the grade

Thousands of grade 12 pupils throughout South Africa began writing their final examinations this week. While not wanting to take anything away from their accomplishments - they have survived 12 years of schooling, after all - our congratulations should come with a warning. Matric is not the end of their education, but should probably represent the beginning of a new phase which they should embrace.

A matric certificate nowadays is not enough to guarantee you a better life. In fact, having a degree does not do that either, but at least it gives you a better chance of success.

Passing matric is still considered a big thing, especially in poorer communities, where the bulk of children who enter the schooling system do not finish their studies. Research has shown that significantly less than half of children who start primary school end up in matric.

Most of these people end up being unemployed, standing on street corners during the day and providing easy fodder for gangs who exploit their inability to earn money. The sad reality is that the ranks of the unemployed in the townships are boosted by many matriculants who cannot afford to go to university and can’t find work. South Africa is going through a highly troublesome period, something which was indicated in the Medium Term Budget speech by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba on Wednesday.

In short, he said South Africa is spending more money than it collects and he has no idea how to turn things around. This means more young people will be unable to find jobs, despite their educational qualifications, increasing inequality in our already unequal society and leading to more poverty and desperation.

It has been a long time since things have looked so gloomy.

One of the ways many nations have changed their fortunes is by educating their people. In South Africa, primary and high school education is free. But free education has never been qualitatively good and that is why parents with money spend thousands every year, supplementing what government provides so that their children receive quality education.

This has, of course, introduced a new form of apartheid in education, with township schools, which depend on government subsidies, not being able to improve the quality of the education they offer, and what some people call former Model C schools (basically former white schools) being able to improve their educational offering significantly because of the extra thousands provided by parents annually.

For many parents in the townships, school is something their children have to complete as a stepping stone, hopefully, to something better. In many cases, this never materialises.

Every year, a few weeks after writing the matric exams, thousands of candidates wait for their results.

For some, good results mean they can get into good universities and study courses which could secure them a decent income after a few years. For most, however, it is another milestone that they have had to complete, without any idea of how it is going to benefit them, financially or otherwise.

The gap in the quality of education between township schools and universities means that youngsters coming out of inferior education will always struggle to survive at university. I know there are exceptions, but they are not many.

This has implications for what government will decide about the funding of tertiary education.

Students want free education but realistically this will be difficult to achieve, especially against a background of the dire economic situation that Gigaba painted on Wednesday.

Free tertiary education cannot take place without the students coming to the party, whether this is by committing to complete studies in a prescribed number of years or agreeing to make some contribution to society after completing their education.

There also needs to be a way of making sure that those who can pay, make at least some contribution.

The situation in South Africa requires decisive leadership, something we have been lacking for a while.

Instead, we have reached a situation where the government - and particularly the president - appears only to take decisions when faced with a court order or threats of legal action.

If I were president - and I will never be, for too many reasons to list here - I would take the nation into my confidence. I would urgently convene a summit of the best brains in the country, from business, labour, civil society and academia, among others, and I would ask them a simple question: how do we take this country forward?

Yes, I know we have the National Development Plan (NDP) which is a great document that seems almost unattainable in the current economic climate. But we need another intervention - a jolt almost - to get us to that point where we can start to realistically look at achieving the goals of the NDP.

We need to put aside political differences and work together in the best interest of the country.

Failure to do this will mean that matric certificates and even degrees will become almost meaningless if we do not create jobs to absorb those who have achieved, and if we are not able to pay to improve the quality of our education.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 28 October 2017)