Who will be the Teachers of the South African Youth: the Schools or the Streets?

One of the greatest struggles that I have encountered during my time in South Africa has been witnessing the clear disparities between the standards of education amongst differing economic classes. Despite these disparities, education is present within a large variety of places in South Africa. Clearly formal education is present within schools and classrooms across this country but other types of educational environments do not stop there. Informal education can be found in examples such as teaching others trade and skills within the street markets or even within South Africa’s infamous prison, Robben Island. Playfully dubbed “Robben Island University,” this informal educational environment became a place where both prisoners and guards would work together to better their learning and knowledge. The presence of education is not the issue within South Africa, the role of education is the issue. Substantial and meaningful education does not play a prominent role in the lives of impoverished children of color. This lack of education is making itself apparent by the severe poverty and low quality of life plaguing many South African townships. Without education, these children cannot hope for a better future for themselves.

There is hope for education in South Africa. Education in South Africa provides the ability for the youth to pull themselves out of the poverty that surrounds them. Nearly all children in South Africa attend, at the very least, primary school (pg. 9, Chasing the Rainbow.) Having a high percentage of youth receiving education is a beneficial characteristic attributed to a developing country like South Africa. However the quality of the education these children are receiving is sub-par at best. South Africa scored dead-last in a 2003 study examining the proficiency of students in the fields of math and science (pg. 9, Chasing the Rainbow.) There can be many reasons attributed to South Africa’s poor quality in education; however it is clear there is a racial disparity in the role of education. One study revealed that only 5% of black students attained math proficiency for admittance to a university. This is a startling statistic in comparison to 7% colored, 41% Indian, and 36% white attaining the necessary proficiency for university admittance (pg. 9, Chasing the Rainbow.) So while the presence of educational opportunities remains equal for all races, the role and motivation that education plays differs completely. Removing myself from my preconceived notions about education was quite difficult during my time in South Africa. It only seemed logical that if a person wants to better themselves then receiving a quality education is vital. However South African teenagers, if they have remained in the educational system for that long, have a difficult choice to make. They have the option to pay a large cost to attend a university or enter immediately into the workforce and begin receiving a paycheck. The choice might seem obvious to any American teenager that pursuing continued education will yield more positive results. However many teenage South Africans have been placed with the burden of monetarily providing for their family. Therefore the opportunity for generating money by entering immediately into the workforce seems much more alluring. Thereby role of education for these South African youth becomes meaningless.

Another influence as to why the role of education is not important for many low-economic South Africans is the environment that they are being taught in. It would be ignorant to claim that education with a high student population and low teacher population only occurs in South Africa. This negative correlation occurs commonly across the world, especially in the United States. South Africa spends 20% of itself national budget on education. Clearly education is a sector that South Africa wants to allocate money to and thereby improve education for South African youth (pg. 9, Chasing the Rainbow.) However as I painted the bars guarding the classroom windows of Ekukhanyisweni Primary School, I was shocked by the chaos that I saw inside these classrooms. One cannot blame the teachers for being overwhelmed in their classrooms. Trying to maintain the attention of upwards of 40 students who are distracted and rowdy is not an easy task. Many times I would walk by a classroom and a teacher would not be present in the classroom. In these incidents where a teacher was not present, the students would be going wild. Dancing, throwing paper, and socializing were the main acts I saw students performing in unsupervised classrooms.
It is disheartening to know that there are students who would like to better themselves through a satisfactory education but cannot receive such an education due to a lack of resources. The most troubling experience at Ekukhanyisweni was when I saw two students sitting in an unsupervised classroom; their little faces screwed up in concentration and their fingers shoved into their ears as they tried to complete assigned problems in their workbooks. Within 10 minutes these two students pushed their workbooks aside and put their heads down on the desk to sleep. Who can blame them for giving up? Without a teacher for guidance and a room full of others yelling and screaming, any normal student would be hard-pressed to continue to perform their assigned schoolwork. Once again another example of how the role of education for South African youth becomes meaningless.

Our experience at Ekukhanyisweni has not been our first encounter with the role of education in South Africa. A prominent example of the role education places for South African youth can be showcased through the benefits of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, being an African expression of togetherness, could not have been a more perfect name for this organization. Ubuntu focuses on building close relationships between churches and schools within the local community. Ubuntu plays a crucial role in education of the South African youth by uplifting them from the poverty surrounding them by funding their educational prowess. Ultimately Ubuntu’s goal is to prepare these South African youth for the next step in their educational pursuits. Casey, the co-founder of Ubuntu, made it clear to us that he is looking for children with potential both on and off the soccer field. His philosophy is that if you invest in a group of youth now, this group will reach their full potential and return to that community to better others. Casey philosophy focuses on education being the catalyst for this cycle to continue to maintain itself. Though others within our study abroad group might not have agreed with Casey’s philosophy, I think it is ingenious and practical. Many social change activists try to make changes for a broad group of individuals in one sweeping motion. However change does not occur that easily, it takes time. It takes empowering a few people, who will then empower a few more people, who will then empower more people and the cycle continues.

The role of education within South Africa needs to be revamped if there is to be any hope of South African youths to have a better future. While speaking to a group of us in his house, Casey elaborated on the reason as to why he sent his daughter, Kerin, to the majority-white school one town over. His response was simply and to the point, “We didn’t want to take a chance with her education by sending her to a bad school in Ocean View.” Well it’s time that someone takes a chance on these impoverish children. More governmental actions need to be enacted to give these children a fighting chance in their educational pursuits. When it comes down to the basics, education is power. So who will be the teachers of the South African youth, the streets or the schools?

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