The past should never be an uncomfortable thing, but because it often shines light on our previous failings, our inactions and shortcomings, it often is. South Africa’s past certainly is uncomfortable. The past, however, is also a necessary part of the present. It gives context to today and, if it is not shied away from, can teach us to be better.
So it is from wanting to be better by facing the past bravely that I am glad Jacob Dlamini asked, on the role of universities in society: “How does one make the point that there are thousands of students in university who should not be there without reinforcing apartheid stereotypes about who belonged in a university?”
This is an important question as I am sure many academics are asking themselves the same thing. He goes on to say – after pointing out that South Africa’s basic education system churns out kids ill-prepared for university and how this has compromised the quality of education on offer – that universities should not be in the business of remedial education.
He’s right on that. In an ideal, functional society, the kind that exists in a textbook perhaps, universities should not be in the business of remedial education. But in South Africa, universities find themselves there, owing wholly to the past.
This position is not unique to universities. Other organisations in this country, too, find themselves there.
In a former life, I worked at a firm that trained young accountants and was actively involved in the training. It became common parlance at some point to say that there existed in the system trainees who should be “managed out”, a euphemism to say they should be fired. These trainees, it was said, performed badly as they were ill-prepared for that kind of work. The workplace, it was also said, was not the place for the remedial education that these badly performing trainees needed. And the further discomfort around this, as described by Dlamini in his article, reared its head here too as all (at least during my time) the badly performing trainees were black.
It was again the spectre of the past, come back to haunt. Part of the problem was that the quality of previous education prevented some trainees from performing to their potential. Despite all the trainees possessing the same undergraduate degree, it was clear from their performance in the board exams and in the workplace that graduates from certain universities performed better than others, just as how in university, matriculants from certain high schools performed better. That these performance differences were largely due to South African’s past bears repeating.
The other part of the problem was less tangible, but still tied very strongly to the past. Unlike many of their white counterparts, black trainees had to deal with the things flowing from what I call the upheaval of upward mobility. Everything about their lives – from social cues and cultural references to economic position and physical location – had changed, almost overnight in some cases. It was these simultaneous and significant changes that presented extra hurdles for black trainees to overcome.
Thankfully, at least within my area of influence, very few trainees were managed out. I recall only one, in fact. Heeding the argument that black trainees, because of the past, face a complex myriad of factors that immediately affect their performance, the powers that be agreed that we must institute processes that provide support to badly performing trainees. They recognised that as an institution of further training and owing to South Africa’s past, it was imperative that we do remedial work. They recognised that we did not exist as ivory towers, far removed from the drudgery of the goings on in the real world and issues of the past.
I hold that in recognising the past so that we may become better and recognising that no person, organisation or institution is an island, it is the duty of all South African institutions and organisations downstream of the basic education system to develop the people they take in without compromising the quality of what they do.
That universities in South Africa are straining under this duty is undeniable. But discarding it is not the answer. To say that there are kids here who do not belong cannot be the answer. The answer is to look for ways to strengthen capacity to handle the burden while at the same time challenging the basic education system to shape up. How exactly this will be done is another conversation, but at least it’s the right one.
The other thought lurking in Dlamini’s piece – that universities exist to create intellectuals – I disagree with too, but that is also another conversation.
Having this past of training young people and being one who sometimes teaches business writing, I, too, see teaching of some kind in my future. I do not absolve students of their responsibilities by virtue of the past, but I have interacted with enough young people to know that all have burning within them the potential and desire to be great. A good enough educator, one who derives joy from seeing how what they teach leads to growth in their students, will not baulk at having to maybe work a little harder to help the student realise this potential.