The media often show insufficient understanding for the complexities and challenges of transforming the education sector, writes Tawana Kupe in City Press.  Transformation is a difficult business!

Tawana Kupe writes in City Press:

The media has scored many successes in post-apartheid SA.

include jealously guarding the new freedoms that a democratic
constitution brings. They also include the media’s ability to focus on
the unfinished agenda of the struggle for a just society in which all
citizens are able to enjoy political and socio-economic rights and to
escape the dehumanising effects of poverty.

However, the media is also unable to understand the manifestations of the deep legacies of apartheid that haunt the present.

is particularly pernicious in its effects because it can consume
generations of families and condemn them to perpetual penury.

is true that poverty is not an excuse for a culture of violent
behaviour, moral depravity and irresponsible conduct. However, poverty
in a society with high levels of urbanisation in a country with a long
history of racial discrimination, state-organised oppression and
exploitation creates subcultures of impunity that can be difficult to

If you add an education system deliberately
designed to impart inferior low-level skills and in which only the most
determined or exceptional could escape, you create transformation
challenges of unimaginable proportions.

It is also often not
realised that the apartheid system lasted well into the 1990s when
global education systems were changing in line with broader social and
economic changes driven by new technologies.

Processes of
economic globalisation have introduced competition between countries
that have not had the same levels of freedom to develop every
individual’s potential without discrimination. This means that today SA
competes for educated and skilled people with the northern
industrialised democracies when the majority of the population has not
had first- class education and training.

In reporting the
statements of critics of the ANC and the government the media often
fails to contextualise the challenges of education, training and skills
levels in society. There is lack of appreciation that SA is expected to
rapidly develop its education and training systems to first-world
levels (if it is to compete and attract higher levels of investment)
without deepening inequalities created by an unfortunate past.

order! SA cannot like most post-independent African states follow the
old development/welfarist model of generously funding education,
training and health with little regard for financial sustainability
because it is expected to demonstrate fiscal austerity.

when it follows these prescriptions it is accused of not doing enough
to address the skills gaps and improving the education system and
therefore not being worthy of investment. One could be excused for
saying: “You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

almost insurmountable challenges of rapidly transforming the education
and training landscape have serious impacts on the transformation of
society as a whole, including transforming the economy and public
institutions. It often means that there has to be some delicate
trade-off between pressing transformation imperatives and, for example,
the need to employ people based on merit and their skills levels in
fields where you need to quickly build capacity to compete.

a fine balance is not easy and failure to achieve it can have
detrimental effects on both transformation as an important imperative
of democratisation and effective use of available high-level skills.

tendency is for critics of the government to focus on and magnify
instances of failure to achieve a fine balance and heavy-handed
implementation as evidence of why transformation is inherently bad.

is also true that there is a tendency for some in government to see
enemies of transformation in all critics who wish to point out a lack
of subtlety in policy implementation.

* Kupe is dean of humanities at Wits University. This column first appeared in City Press on 18 February 2007