South Africa’s inequality dilemma and dreams from our villages

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Photo: Henry Marsh

In the far-flung rural hinterlands of the province of Limpopo, near the Kruger National Park’s Punda Maria gate, is a small village of Duthuni. This is the place I hail from, my ancestral home since my ancestors migrated there from the Great Lakes during the years gone by. Not so long ago, the areas surrounding Duthuni were lush with rolling green hills. Now that is disappearing and giving way to a barren and dreary land due to population increase. Life is bleak and slow, and there is not much to do. Life in Duthuni, however, is the reality of the vast majority of South Africa’s people. I attended primary school lessons a world away from the comforts of a structure and balanced my schoolwork with herding livestock for my family. There were little more than a few rickety benches under a tree and when rain or cold weather descended, our classes were often abandoned.

I certainly dreamt big but as you know, in the context of our country, often the odds are heavily stacked against dreams of that stature. I am one of the lucky few. I went to high school at Mbilwi Secondary School in Sibasa. It was in matric that I subverted what many assumed would be my lot in life. I entered and won the National Science Olympiad and was sent to the United Kingdom to attend the London International Youth Science Fortnight. It was hard work, it was tenacity, but more than anything else, it was the type of luck one holds when winning the lotto.

In the week preceding my trip, I found myself in Johannesburg, the biggest city I had ever seen. It was busy, it was bustling – a complete antithesis of Duthuni. It was awash with opportunity for the wide-eyed. A few days later, when I left for London, I was certainly carrying my context with me. I did not understand the cold war or its global context, and engineering and artificial intelligence were not in my lexicon. My future certainly had not been mapped out. But it was in frosty London that I decided on two things: I would spend the rest of my life in science and technology, and I would study in the distant lands outside of South Africa. Did I imagine at the time that I would one day write books, become the leader of a university or hold my own patents?

Though I had grand ambitions, I do not think I dared to dream that big. After all, my childhood was a microcosm of the broader realities of our nation. Our country is plagued with rampant inequality. Stark in my mind is the Time Magazine cover from last year. The cover was taken by photographer Johnny Miller with a drone to highlight how close and how unequal our spaces are. Two neighbourhoods outside of Johannesburg, the wealthy Primrose on the left and the informal settlement of Makause on the right are indicative of our fraught context.

It was in 2018 that the World Bank admonished South Africa as the most unequal country, with estimations (from 2015) that the top 10% owned 70% of the nation’s assets. It takes little more than a drive to confirm this. Sandton, the richest square mile in Africa, lies next to Alexandra township. Just a few kilometres from the continent’s tallest building where you will find grandeur and meals akin to Michelin star restaurants, lie rows and rows of shacks. Our inequality is multifaceted; it is apparent in our unemployment statistics, in our education system, in our public health system and in the spread of our land. Yet, in an age where we must be equipped with skills to stay ahead, our education levels arguably prove the most damning.

In February this year, a report published by Amnesty International referred to the South African education system as, “characterised by crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor educational outcomes, [in a manner that] is perpetuating inequality and as a result failing too many of its children, with the poor hardest hit”. This is not intended to be pessimistic. I am, of course, one of the many testaments that you can forge a different path when given the chance. But it must be acknowledged that I am an outlier, and for many, a chance opportunity remains elusive.

The statistics are certainly damning. In 2018, Statistics South Africa found that more than three million South Africans are illiterate, meaning they do not have the ability to read and write in any language. More disturbing is that, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which evaluates children’s reading capability, has placed South African children last amongst 50 countries. According to this survey, 78% of grade four pupils cannot read for basic meaning in any national language in South Africa. This makes them functionally illiterate. In our vast population, many do not make it into high school, let alone to matric.

Less than 70% of students who obtain a matric exemption enrol in a university. The cost of schooling is exorbitant for families who have a single breadwinner, who live on the poverty line and the ugly truth is that many of the existing structures remain woefully ill equipped to educate at the required level. Even among those who make it to university, disparity lingers. The Covid-19 pandemic certainly revealed many of these fault lines. In the shift towards remote teaching and learning, issues of access frequently cropped up. For those who beat the odds and made it to a tertiary institution, there were still hindrances.

Data, Wi-Fi and access to smartphones at the very least are necessities for a complete transition online. Yet, this sadly is not a reality for many students who are often the first in their families to go to university and face other economic challenges. While there have been short-term solutions to this, such as free data for the lockdown period and the distribution of devices, there needs to be a long-term view. This, of course, does not address the needs and requirements of the vast swathes of our population who are left behind.

The outlook seems dire. The unemployment statistics paint a grim picture. If you delve into the numbers, there is an indication that the graduate unemployment rate is lower than the rate among those with other educational levels. Thus, education is still the key to improving youth prospects in the South African labour market. Data from the World Bank in 2018 indicated that 12% of workers with a tertiary education were unemployed in 2018. This ranked South Africa in an alarming 10th highest globally. Given the economic fallout since then, on the back of load shedding and now a global pandemic and national lockdown, the prospects are likely to look even bleaker.

According to a 2019 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report, a key challenge for our rising unemployment problem is the lack of enough and appropriate skills. As we ponder how to level the playing field, we need to posit solutions that bridge our digital divide, encompassed by access to the internet, education, skilled-employment and technological innovation. One solution is that we need to adjust our education system to one that satisfactorily prepares students. This must incorporate reskilling, upskilling and providing access to on-the-job training, with a specific focus on gender inclusion.

The success of remote learning indicates that there is room for more students that universities cannot accommodate on campuses. We simultaneously must navigate the conversation around access and inequity. Greater access to devices and data, in part, necessitates backing from our telecommunications sector. Another solution is access to Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi such as AlwaysOn is already available in malls and airports. There are NGOs and community organisations that offer centres to work from. Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPPU) offer free Wi-Fi at their offices in Harare Square in Khayelitsha and Lotus Park in Gugulethu in Cape Town.

The Wot-If Trust in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, has a digital lab, with a free Wi-Fi centre, and also teaches the basics of coding and its application in robotics. In particular, this centre teaches how to make these technologies fun for kids using the trainer concept, which allows for the transfer of skills. These are pockets of hope but are models that have to be replicated if we are to ensure that more of our people have access.  Of course, these solutions are all well and good to posit. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a South African who is not aware that education and importantly, access are keys to subverting our current narrative. Yet, the funding and a fundamental will need to be directed here for this to be a reality.

As Nelson Mandela so eloquently put it, “As long as many of our people still live in utter poverty, as long as children still live under plastic covers, as long as many of our people are still without jobs, no South African should rest and wallow in the joy of freedom.” It is a much grander responsibility than simply calling for change. We must create a South Africa where an aspirational teenager from the village of Duthuni is not seen as one of the lucky few. The dreams in villages, the dreams in townships are just as valid as those nestled between the suburbs. We should not wonder why our youth dare to dream so big, we should not hope that they strike it lucky, instead, we should foster an environment that makes this a growing reality.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. He is on twitter at @txm1971.0