As an outsider here I find the narrative by some that SA is on its way to becoming a failed state laughable. Problems, yes, but plenty to be positive about.

In the early 1990s the country was on the brink of civil war. Today it is a vibrant, if messy, democracy. Per capita GDP is roughly 30% higher today than in 1994. In 1996 just 6-million people lived in a formal house; today the figure is 80% of all families. The number of families with piped water is double what it was in 1996. The percentage of kids in school at age five jumped from 30% in 2002 to 85% in 2013.

Race is also less of an issue than many think. About 88% of South Africans agree that “different races need one another for progress and there should be equal opportunities for all”. There is hope for the future, with 76% saying that with better education and more jobs, inequality among races will disappear. Talk of racism is mostly from self-serving politicians — a contention 64% of South Africans agree with (this data is mostly from Frans Cronje’s recent book, The Rise or  Fall of SA).

Change, particularly transformative change, takes time. It is usually a multigenerational project. I can speak from experience. The Ireland I grew up in the 1980s and early 1990s was a grim place. Unemployment was stubbornly high, violence in Northern Ireland a daily, evil presence. A controlling Catholic theocracy stifled independent thinking. And the weather was awful.

Today it is utterly unrecognisable. Unemployment in the two decades is at the point economists call full employment. Meaning plenty of jobs. The brain drain of skills stopped and Ireland experienced rapid immigration from all over the world. In addition, Irish migrants came back home with money, experience and ideas. Today Ireland is cosmopolitan, diverse and socially liberal. And rich!

The reason for the turnaround was that bold, longer-term decisions were taken in the 1980s and early 1990s that catapulted the Irish economy and society to where it is today. First, national pay deals were agreed between the unions and business with tax trade-offs thrown in. This gave business the two things it craves: stability and certainty. Second, funds from the EU were spent wisely, on infrastructure in particular.

Third was positioning Ireland as a base for multinationals expanding into the EU and embracing global markets. The strong Irish diaspora in key investment markets was also a factor. Fourth (and allied to the previous point) was low corporation tax of 12.5%. Last, and most important, there was major investment in skills and education. In particular, technical education and universities were greatly expanded with a focus on developing a skills pipeline for inward investors.

This set of intersupporting policies led the way for huge inward investment, but skills and education were the most important. No matter how low your taxes or how good your roads, if investors cannot source the skills they need they will not come.

Here in SA recent troubles on university campuses highlighted again how the education system remains highly unequal. Of the million or so pupils who enter grade one each year a mere 5% will make it all the way to university graduation.

SA spends 6.2% of GDP on education, a higher percentage than most rich countries, yet more than three-quarters of children in grade four cannot read for meaning, which deepens their inability to learn as they progress to higher grades.

Education and skills systems are hard to reform. The results do not show up in the electoral cycle and changes take years. Embedded interests keep things the way they are. Reform usually only comes through a crisis that upends everyday thinking.

The Covid-19 pandemic is such a crisis. For example, it presents huge opportunities, through digital and remote learning, to widen opportunities for students and educators through blended learning approaches. Expanding the roles of teachers could enable them to become facilitators of learning rather than transmitters of content.

It also comes at a time when technological advances pose challenges to traditional education approaches. Rote learning is less important in a world when knowledge is a Google search away. Skills such as critical thinking and adaptability will be more important for success in future.

The investment will cost, but if you think it is too high just consider the cost of not doing it.

• Rynhart is senior specialist in employers’ activities with the International Labour Organisation, based in SA. He is author of ‘Colouring the Future: Why the UN Plan to End Poverty and Wars is Working’.


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