“Has tolerance no limits?”
Why the education crisis persists
Jonathan D Jansen
University of the Free State
2 October 2012
Two events of seismic proportions shook the Western Cape in the closing days of September 1969. The first was the Ceres-Tulbagh earthquake of 29 September which registered 6.3 on the Richter scale with aftershocks that continued as far forward as the 14th of April 1970 and whose effects were felt more than 1000 km away in Durban. The earthquake was said to have caused physical displacement of 26cm of ground over a distance of 20km, and that it was caused by “a shallow tectonic failure along the Saron-Groenhof lineament.”
The second seismic shock was the murder on the night of 27 September in the Maitland police cells of the 44-year old Imam of the Stegman Street Mosque, the Editor of “Moslem News”, the husband of Galiema, and the father of three young children—Shamila, Mogamet and Fatima. That death—the 12th of a political prisoner to die in police custody between 1963 and 1969—sent forth tremors of grief and protest that registered shockwaves well beyond the borders of South Africa. The killing of the Imam displaced the political grounds in the Cape; indeed it shook complacent communities into political action for this noble martyr was killed by a shallow political and moral failure that was rightly laid at the door of the politicians (apartheid’s NP parliamentarians) and their professional collaborators (lawyers, doctors, police) who tried to prop-up an immoral and racist system.
That we are gathered here this evening for the 5th Annual Imam Haron Memorial Lecture bears witness to the fact that we have not forgotten that political earthquake that marked the death of such a courageous leader. There is at least one book that carries his memory (The Killing of the Imam by Barney Desai and Cardiff Marney, 1978), as well as a documentary film (tubafilms), a comprehensive entry in South African History Online, and a well-bound archive of newspaper articles reporting on his life and death.
Yet nothing keeps vital memories of our past alive more powerfully than a Memorial Lecture, and so I congratulate the organisers for ensuring that every generation of young South Africans learn the lessons of faith and courage given to us through the life of Imam Haron for we need to be reminded of the price that was paid for our freedom and why we dare not tolerate what passes for education and decency in our country.
A sense of connection
I was thirteen years old when the lesser earthquake hit the Western Cape; my parents would tease me for years afterwards that I slept through my birthday night (the 29th of September) blissfully unaware of the commotion on the streets of Retreat where we lived—such as the scores of people who came to repentance in church after viewing a rather scary evangelical movie called The Burning Hell as the tremors were felt on the streets of the Cape Flats.
What I did not sleep through, in the manner of speaking, was the other earthquake for throughout my teenage years I was reminded—at school, university and the community—of the Imam who “accidentally fell down the stairs” and died even though the alleged fall could not, according to the inquest, account for all 27 blue-green bruises on the body. Since that time, we mocked the official versions of activists who died in detention as a result of slipping on a bar of soap or jumping from a window or hanging themselves or falling down stairs. This is perhaps the moment to recall a poem by the writer Chris van Wyk:
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing
Chris van Wyk, It is time to go home, 1979
(copied from book Death of an Idealist, In search of Neil Aggett, author Beverley Naidoo, 2012, p. xix, Jonathan Ball Publishers)
As I prepared for this evening’s Lecture I felt a sense of connection to the Imam as I learnt about familiar landmarks such as Repulse Road where he had built a home across from the City & Suburban Rugby Stadium; we have a family home nearby. I studied some of his messages delivered in the Mosque and in the Cape Town Drill Hall. I listened to the stop-start online recollections of family members and leaders in the community. And I felt that the Imam and his message were very much alive in that his ideals and struggles remain as relevant today as they were during the struggle against apartheid.
The essence of the man
There are seven qualities of Imam Haron that struck me as worth sharing.
- His strong sense of humane values rooted in his faith. He expressed a strong commitment to the values of freedom, dignity, respect and fairness and this came through clearly and repeatedly in his rousing public addresses.
- His deep commitment to education. Even though he did not have the opportunity to proceed beyond primary schooling, he was passionate about education; his informal and adult education was, however, extensive, and biographers recount that “for his children he sought education, almost to the point of desperation.”
- His passion for a better society. He had within his vision a society that was not based on racism and discrimination but equality for all human beings including freedom of worship—something he stood on strongly when it came to the immovable position of mosques under the Group Areas act.
- His courage in the face of injustice. There was a growing awareness that the dragnet of the apartheid system was closing in on him, and that he should have made plans to escape the country a long time ago. But he stood his ground and despite the horrors of what awaited him, the Imam did not resist confinement and bore the humiliation and isolation with great dignity.
- His internationalist orientation to the understanding of society. He travelled widely at a time when few did, and gradually developed a fine-tuned understanding of global struggles for justice and the solidarity of those in North Africa and Europe.
- His non-partisan perspective with respect to others. While he was a devout Muslim, this was the foundation from which he served people also in Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga with social and financial support. He consolidated Muslim-Christian relations from his base in Athlone and worked with Canon Collins (renowned for the work of the Defense and Aid Fund) of St Paul’s Cathedral in London to raise funds for his welfare work.
- His legacy to the country in times like ours. The Imam teaches us what selflessness and sacrifice really means; that a life of faith can and should have practical consequences in the service of others; and that we should be intolerant of injustice and inequality without impairing the dignity of the liberation fighter.
How does this generous and liberating vision of Imam Haron speak to the education crisis in the country today? The title for my talk comes from an address delivered by Imam Haron in the Cape Town Drill Hall on 7 May 1961 when he made an emotional attack on the degrading laws and policies of the government of the day which were intended, in his words, “to cripple us educationally, politically and economically.” He then asked the rhetorical questions: “How much can we bear? Has tolerance not a limit?”
Has tolerance not a limit?
At times it seems as if our country has reached the limits of tolerance. In Kuruman and Olifantshoek (Northern Cape) parents close down schools until their demand for a tarred road or the expulsion of a mayor is met. In Port Elizabeth teachers and parents closed down a school until salaries are paid and textbooks delivered. In more than one municipality places of books, libraries, are burnt on a regular basis. Some universities annually witness their students trashing sites of higher learning for some immediate concerns that normally come in a package of demands from finances for study to student accommodation to so-called academic exclusions.
In some of these cases the behaviour on display is nothing more than local gangsterism and the fierce competition for political and economic opportunity among rivals. But in many other cases people are deeply frustrated that we have not delivered on the dream of a better life for all. That frustration increasingly boils over into a violence that destroys the very limited resources (like libraries) available for some form of learning. And it appears that our government has neither the capacity to deliver the minimum required for a decent education or the credibility in the poorest communities to persuade citizens to wait even longer.
The defensive argument that Rome was not built in a day—but the Nkandla homestead apparently can be—suggests to ordinary people a massive fraud estimated, in the Nkandla case, at more than R200 million of tax payers money. The ostentatious display of wealth by the new rich while the poor remain stuck in leaking shacks reminds the destitute of the growing distance, materially and emotionally, between them and the wealthy. The growing wealth of the mining companies and bosses that does not translate into the welfare of the mining families cannot but build resentment and anger among those who toil in the danger and darkness of holes deep in the ground.
It is in education, however, that our tolerance is being severely stretched. Consider the following:
- the gap between privileged schools and poor schools has remained constant despite political and policy interventions of all kind; within less than 30 minutes, in any province, you can travel from the most affluent schools in the world to the poorest schools anywhere. The small percentage of privileged schools is now deracialised, composed of middle class black and white students; while the disadvantaged schools are of course black and poor. Why should we tolerate this?
- the schools of the poor are routinely disrupted or trashed or closed by adults on the outside of the school—unions, activists, gangsters – without any effective intervention that delivers stable schools with predictable timetables. The schools of the privileged continue without interruption to teaching and learning; the schools of the poor remain unstable. Why should we tolerate this?
- the academic results of learners in the privileged schools remain consistently high, with top students routinely achieving six or seven distinctions among their top candidates and with 90-100% pass rates every year; the learners in poor schools consistently underperform with high failure rates across the grades. Why should we tolerate this?
- the national system consistently appears at the bottom of competitive league tables when compared with other countries in Africa and outside the continent; despite the fact that we invest more money per capita and more money in relation to GDP than almost any other third world country, the national system achieves the worst results. Why should we tolerate this?
- the academic standards for passing in South Africa are now so low (40% and 30% in Grade 12 subjects; with the mass migration or transfer of students from mathematics to mathematical literacy) that few universities take seriously the marks that students achieve in the National Senior Certificate. That is why most respectable universities devise their own additional tests and set the admissions standards high not because they wish to exclude students failed by the system, but because they refuse to become part of this determination by the authorities to spread this virus of mediocrity from schools into higher education. Why should we tolerate this?
- The weak foundations of learning in the lower primary grades, something reflected in the low attainment of young learners in numeracy and literacy and later in science and mathematics. Instead of correcting the problem in the foundations, we automatically promote or pass students into higher grades so that academic problems are never corrected, merely passed on into high school and, in many cases, into university. Why should we tolerate this?
- The failure of our universities to become the sources of new national and global leaders with strong education qualifications in their disciplines and strong leadership credentials from their institutions is a cause of great concern; in any given year 3-5 universities are “under administration” because of failures of management or governance or both. Why should we tolerate this?
Why does this education crisis persist?
I can hear some of you saying we know these dimensions of the education crisis well. The question is why do we appear stuck in this mess? Surely we have the best policies (we are told) and even the most progressive Constitution to guarantee the rights and dignity of all citizens?
We are not able to fundamentally alter the education of the poor because those entrusted with the task place their own children in the best public and private schools and universities far removed from the dysfunction and poverty of the education system in which the majority remains stuck. They do not feel the effects of union disruptions of schools. They do not know what it is like for a textbook not to be delivered. Their own children are cotton-woolled inside the well-resourced and stable schools. The same is true for the teachers who disrupt poor schools through their union activities; their own children are safe and secure inside the walls of the privileged schools.
I do not believe, from the political to the professional classes, that there is enough of a felt-sense of the miscarriage of justice with respect to the education of the poor to mobilise those with power and resources to act on behalf of other people’s children. That is why miners bypass establishment unions and why parents refuse to listen to education officials in places where schools have been closed down—they do not believe that the newly privileged care enough to act on their plight.
We have learnt to say one thing and do another thing. Show me one person on the Pan South African Language Board who sends their children to non-English primary and high schools and universities. Show me one Minister who does not place her child or grandchild in a high-quality preschool education. Show me a top government official in national office who places their children in a historically black university. We live with the contradictions around us and somehow make peace with our consciousnesses that public officials cannot be held accountable for their private decisions.
We have given over our authority to government and we believe, dangerously, that it is only the state that should be held accountable for education. I want to ask about our accountability as parents, especially in the poorest schools. Where are the parents when schools allow learners to leave for home early? Or when teachers do not teach? Or when homework is not assigned? Or when test results show that children are not learning? Where are the parents when unions close schools indefinitely or gangsters threaten the homes of children whose parents try to sneak them into schools against the wishes of the mob?
In an article titled “Where are the parents,” Mosibudi Mangena, the former Minister of Science and Technology, makes the timely point that
It is not the strength of the unions that distorts the situation, but the weakness of parental organisation that requires serious and concerted attention. There was hardly a whimper from parents in the Eastern Cape recently as teachers went on a protracted go-slow that left children unattended, idle and free to roam the streets.
The crisis persists because the teachers themselves, in the poorest schools, have in many cases abandoned the children. At one of South Africa’s worst primary schools in the rural Free State, and after a motivational talk to students and teachers, a group of male teachers said this with such emotion that I was stunned into silence: “We would rather be in hell than be in this school.” I wanted to say “then go to hell, because the damage you do to these children with your attitude will be much greater than if you did not show up at all.” I just cannot believe that teachers can happily draw a salary month after month but at the same time deny children access to a high-quality education that can only come through the dedication of teaching. It is difficult for me to accept that teachers do not realise that they are, for most poor children, the one and only difference between a life of poverty and a life of hope.
The situation will not change unless we are prepared to impose a system of accountability for teachers, principals, district officials and politicians. If every profession can set standards of accountability for its practitioners—from accounting to medicine to social work—why can’t we demand this of those who claim professional status in our schools? In a school I visited the other day there are four to five teachers in a staff of less than 15 absent every day. The principal has been on sick leave for a second six-month term, leaving the school without leadership. There is no accountability required of those inside the schools or from those responsible in the provincial government for this disastrous situation. The unions act with impunity when they raise the ghosts of inspection from the 1970s but this is the 21st century and we have a democratic government; unless schools are held accountable, the crisis cannot be reversed; it’s as simple as that.
The crisis continues because every year we engage in a public process of mutual self-deception. We allow children to pass with 30% and 40%, and lie to the children that with these sub-standard marks they can go anywhere in life, let alone university or other forms of post-school education. Small wonder many students cannot write or argue with any fluency in university because the foundations of their education are weak. We allow incompetent and unskilled officials in government to burden schools with senseless policies from OBE to CAPS without attending to these simple questions that define functional school systems everywhere: can the learners read, write, calculate, and compute after a period of instruction?
Yes, tolerance has a limit and in a wounded society without a sense of public discipline and common decency, the danger we all face is when intolerance becomes violent and destructive, and where the nobility of activism is replaced by the vulgarity of gangsterism. So what can we do? I want to suggest five actions:
- We need every sector of society to stand up and say clearly to government: enough is enough. I call on the faith-based community, for example, to take a public stand and demand from government that it declares a national crisis in education and reports back to such a community on tangible progress made with the transformation of education in the poorest community.
- We need to support legislation that demands that minimum standards be set for education delivery in all schools, but especially the poorest schools in the country, and that the failure of government to deliver imposes massive financial penalties on the Department of Basic Education which funds return to schools.
- We need to mobilise parents to take accountability for their children’s education. I do not know whether the school governing bodies in the poorest schools are effective in this regard. But parents need to take centre stage and demand that their children receive quality education on a fixed timetable with measurable results for which the school will be held accountable.
- We need to reassert in the public domain the inherent value of a good public education. In a context where poor communities increasingly question education as a public good, all of us need to remind young and old that education remains the only legitimate route out of poverty and that education offers a means to dignity and decency. The family, the cultural group, the faith-based organisations, the schools themselves, government—need to carry this simple message about the importance of education over and over again.
- We need every citizen with the privilege of an education to do something to change the life chances of the poor. We must never underestimate the power of the moral underground—those tens of thousands of volunteers, outside of government, whom in small ways and large extend education opportunities to the destitute.
You can join organisations like Equal Education or reading clubs like Nali’bali. You can establish an independent learning centre where you live. You can organise after-school mathematics for high school youth. You can offer education guidance and counselling to students. You can fund the school fees of one child to attend a good school. You are not powerless; make the difference.
You would have noticed in the account of education and the activism outlined that I have drawn liberally on the ideas and passions of Imam Haron. By this I mean his refusal to separate school and society; education and community; faith and activism; individual agency and political authority. To him, it was the same thing.
I therefore come from the preparation for this Lecture inspired by Imam Haron to do more and better in the struggle for an education that is intolerant—intolerant of low standards in education and of unequal access to quality education.
If we all make this commitment, then Imam Abdulla Haron did not die in vain. In fact he would still be with us through a powerful, enduring legacy. In that sense Mary Elizabeth Fry might well have been speaking of Imam Haron in the closing words of her wonderful poem:
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not dead, I did not die
 Paragraph draws on http://www.stormchasing.co.za/articles-and-news/historic-weather-archive/184-tulbagh-ceres-1969-earthquake
 I acknowledge these sources in helping me compose the background and content on the life of Imam Haron