Education makes a winning nation!

Unless the private sector gets involved in education, we’ll never make it as a winning nation. But farmers, having special relationships with their employees, have a unique opportunity and role to play here.

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It’s a painful memory – that match at the FNB Stadium (previously called Soccer City) when Richie McCaw dived over in one corner and Israel Dagg in the other in the final two minutes, giving the All Blacks victory over the Springboks and clinching the Tri-Nations title. Do you remember? It was John Smit’s 100th appearance for the Boks and he got a standing ovation from the crowd – a great personal moment for him.

But when it was all over, dejected and somewhat bloodied, he said, “It was my fault. I missed the tackle.” No hesitation. No passing the buck. He took the blame – a South African who embodies outstanding leadership skills. Contrast this behaviour with that of our government leaders – but first, some background. One of my most prized possessions is a book published in 1987 written by Clem Sunter, The World and South Africa in the 1990s.

It sets out the “high road” and “low road” scenarios for South Africa, and the one indelible memory of that book that I’ve carried with me is its emphasis on education. “The foremost characteristic of a winning nation is the quality of its education system. If you ask the Japanese, ‘What is the key to your success?’ they will tell you it’s education, education, education,” writes Sunter. “Nine out of 10 Japanese three- and four-year-olds go to private pre-schools where they’re introduced to language, communication and the importance of being a team member.”

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A dire situation for education
On 9 September, the World Economic Forum, a leading international think-tank in which our president and other government and business leaders actively participate, published its latest Global Competitiveness Report. Of the 139 countries assessed, South Africa comes in 54th – not too bad considering who the competitors are. However, in a few areas we’re among the worst in the world.

Our education system has a devastating effect on our ability to become a winning nation – ranking South Africa at a dismal 130th! We didn’t need the World Economic Forum to tell us we were doing badly, but I’ve been shocked to see just how badly. Quite coincidentally, just following the release of this report, the National General Council of the ANC carried out its mid-term review.

I’ve been eagerly scanning the media for a sign that any government leader is aware of this report, or has expressed concern about education, but it’s been a vacuum. Absolute silence. Not a word from the president, secretary general of the ANC Gwede Mantashe, basic education deputy minister Enver Surty, or from higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande.

Instead, discussion has focused on establishing a media tribunal, nationalising mines, compulsory community service for graduates, leadership succession, and other topics of much less significance to building a successful nation. Are these leaders unaware of the disastrous performance of our education department?

Have they never heard of the Global Competitiveness Report? I have no doubt they have, but what we see here is weak leadership, quite unlike John Smit’s instinctive acceptance of the blame, together with some serious managerial incompetence. These managers – for that’s the job they should be doing – wouldn’t last a week in the private sector. Fortunately, in talking to farmers, I’m talking to the right people.

It’s still not enough
Farmers will always have a special relationship with their employees, which gives them a unique opportunity. I don’t know if my experience has been typical of most farmers, but over the years we built a preschool and a primary school. We provided the staff to manage them, usually one of the wives on the farm, and for many years my own wife. We provided and maintained houses for the teachers.

We subsidised the head teacher’s salary and gave teachers incentives to perform. We gave the kids a midday meal. We supplied the prizes at year end, and we provided and managed a bursary scheme for two outstanding students each year. It was hard work, the bureaucracy frustrated us, it was expensive, but it was worth it. However, it wasn’t enough. We should’ve done more. We should’ve started the preschool much earlier.

Its establishment did more to improve the standard of education than any other single step we took. If you don’t have one, establish it. If you don’t have a primary school, set one up, and always remember it’s not the building that makes for a good school, it’s the management. Getting involved in education is imperative, because the way they’re going, government’s not going to do it for us. –

Peter Hughes ([email protected] or call 083 626 6338).