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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Speech by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary at Nompumelelo High School, Sada Township, Whittlesea

26 April 2008

It is a very special honour for me to be asked to speak today at the reunion and the commemoration of 30th anniversary of Nompumelelo High School.

This school has a fine record of service to its community. You began in 1976, the year when our historic struggle against apartheid entered a new and decisive stage. You fought against terrible problems in those days, but, as your chairperson said in his invitation to me: "Nompumelelo refused to surrender."

I am a son of this depressed area. I spent all my youth time here, through Nozipho primary school to Sada higher primary, Khanya Junior Secondary those days and Mhlotshana High School. I was not one the learners of your school but some of my sisters and family studied here. I have been a neighbour of the school, both as a student in Mhlotshana and because I lived nearby.

As we know there is hardly any difference between all our schools. Although Nompumelelo was built years after Mhlotshana High School, its infrastructure reflected the strategy of the former apartheid regime to keep our schools down.

Today we can be proud of schools like yours, which have struggled to transform the lives of our communities. As you know very well, education was deformed under an apartheid system that impoverished and disempowered the majority of our people.

Since the transition to democracy, the ANC government has tried to overcome the divisions and unfairness left in the education system. Since 1994, we have made tremendous progress in integrating the separate apartheid systems and ensuring more equitable educator/learner ratios across the country. There is no doubt that the conditions of both learners and educators have improved with better access to education.

But we still have far to go. Above all, the huge inequalities in the educational system developed under apartheid persist, although they now align with class, not just race. The upper class is still largely white, which means that, because you can buy a good education these days, race and class will continue to be tied together in the future. Some three quarters of managers are still white - and half of university students. Meanwhile, schools like Nompumelelo have to struggle with inadequate textbooks and facilities.

Massive problems persist. Every year, over a million learners start school. But in 2007, only 400 000 made it to matric. Most of the drop outs left because they couldn't afford to pay for fees or uniforms, or because they were discouraged by the poor quality of education and because high unemployment robbed them of hope. Of those who took matric, only two thirds passed. That means close to 150 000 failed.

And few of those who took matric made it into university. The university exemption rate is 15%. But the inequalities are so stark. Only 12% of Africans who take matric get a university exemption, compared to half of white learners.

This racial divide reflects deeper and economic inequalities. School fees maintain deep class differences between schools in the leafy suburbs and those in the townships or, even worse, rural areas. Working class children cannot afford the school fees charged at the former whites-only schools. Black learners who can afford a Model C school pass matric; those who can only afford historically black schools are fighting an uphill battle.

The factors behind these inequalities are historical. They go back to our subjugation and impoverishment during decades of apartheid and colonialism of a special type. Factors that speak to this history include the appalling quality of buildings in historically black schools, close to half of which still lack electricity.

We continue to have shortages of textbooks and stationery. The closure of teacher training colleges has contributed to a continuing shortage of teachers, estimated to be around 35 000. Currently we graduate approx 6000 new teachers per annum, but the annual attrition rate is between 18 000 and 24 000.

The shortcomings in the education system feed into, as well as arising out of, the intolerable level of unemployment. The Eastern Cape's rate is among the worst. In September last year, it was 38%, compared to 23% in the Western Cape, and 29% in Gauteng.

But this is not a result primarily of low skills and education. The average unemployed youth - and young people make up two thirds of the unemployed - has had 11 years of formal education. That is far more than in most developing countries, which have much lower unemployment.

To continually blame unemployment on poor education and skills essentially blames the victim. It plays into the racist belief that black people are too uneducated to function in the formal economy. This is obviously nonsense.

Unemployment is high because the economy is not creating jobs, reflecting low levels of investment and the emphasis on capital-intensive industries like metals, auto and heavy chemicals. It reflects highly concentrated ownership that prevents growth in other sectors. It has been aggravated by the downsizing of the public service. Unless we address these challenges, no amount of skills development will lead to job creation.

Nompumelelo has had to survive in this kind of unfriendly climate. And the Eastern Cape has had a particularly poor record in education and service delivery.

Because of its apartheid history, the province has two of the world's largest ghettos in the former Transkei and Ciskei. Consequently massive poverty and joblessness continue to afflict our people. This township Sada, as well as its surroundings, Hewu and the entire Lukhanji and Chris Hani districts, reflects the distance we are still to travel. The poverty, unemployment and lack of infrastructure makes a depressing scene. And Sada is just an example that broadly reflects the situation in the former apartheid Bantustans.

Tomorrow marks the 14 anniversary of our freedom. We can see that the slogan of building a better life for all has still to be transformed into a living reality for many in these former Bantustans. We have failed to come up with meaningful socio-economic reconstruction plans for these areas, so they remain pockets of concentrated poverty.

No one can deny that we have made progress in many fronts. Post 1994 is better than pre 1994. But most of our gains have been political. The fact remains that current national economic policies are clearly inadequate to deal with the complex economic and social realities of these former 'homelands'. We recognise that provincial initiatives like the school feeding programme have begun to have a real impact, but even these relatively new initiatives require much more support and resources from the national, not just the provincial, treasury.

The persisting inability, both at national and provincial levels, to decisively deal with the legacy of inferior health, education and other social infrastructure for working class communities renders us unable to eradicate the economic and social distortions we inherited from the apartheid economy and society.

Skills shortages, migration of skilled labour to big cities, the absence of a strategy to retain scarce skills in the province, and deep-seated problems in the education sector all combine to undermine the good work done by the state to improve services for our people.

A poor province like the Eastern Cape, during this transition, needs deliberate skills retention strategies to assist in managing and growing agriculture, education and the health sector.

We need support from the rest of the country. At the current level of funding, even if the province performed excellently, it would take many years before the backlogs in education, health, food, housing, sanitation, and similar such basic necessities of life were met. The province needs to campaign for a review of national developmental funding.

It has to be conceded however that the province has not always been able to fully utilise every Rand that was meant to improve the lives of the people. Unspent government funds, and the consequent large rollovers, especially on infrastructure investment, are a scandal and do not augur well for future development.

According to the Treasury's medium, provinces were around 8% behind on budgeted expenditure for the first and second quarter of that financial year. The Eastern Cape was 12% behind and it also has the lowest rate of spending on the budgets for social services and housing.

The Housing Department was particularly far behind on spending, with a billion rands left unspent. Overall, the province had a surplus of R1,2 billion in 2006. That is over a billion rands that should have gone to benefit our people but remained in the bank instead.

There is a strong relationship between the inability to spend our allocated budget and our poor matric results and our appalling record of service delivery. We need stronger political leadership to lead this province into its renewal.

Congratulations of achieving 30 magnificent years of providing education to your community. We can all be proud of what you have achieved and I am confident that in the next 30 years you will produce even more highly educated and skilled South African citizens.

Thank you