Schools get a giant F for not reinforcing human values
SA education has been in chronic dysfunction for years because it is failing in its most basic function
We were squeezed inside a narrow, rectangular plot of the Plumstead cemetery. On each side there was a rival funeral. The preachers struggled to out-shout each other. Our group was on a hiding to nothing.
A long-established tradition in the church of my youth was a general aversion to musical instruments and a sense of English decorum carried by words like acting “dignified” at a funeral. Our acapella singing was subdued. The Pentecostalists on each side struck up with bands – a piano accordion, a saxophone and hearty singing punctuated with “amens”.
Our decidedly more middle-class, reverential group of saints did not stand a chance against the hearty singing and throaty preaching of the working classes. Our preacher strained to be heard; all I could see was his lips moving as an older saint almost stumbled into the hole.
This was Saturday morning on the Flats of Cape Town where people came to bury their dead. It was clear that graves were dug next to each other during the week and the next Saturday bodies were deposited into them side by side. As one funeral group left, another arrived. Sometimes a popular preacher simply jumped from one mound to the next, his voice now hoarse from the previous commitment.
Something struck me last Saturday amid the cacophony. The deeply spiritual roots of our communities. For all that is wrong with our political transition, there is this deep sense of spirituality built on abiding values of community. It is this spirituality that keeps us from edging over the precipice, our faith in something more powerful than ourselves.
This is a point I made as commentator on a new book by my friend Fanie du Toit called When political transitions work (Oxford University Press 2018). It is an exceptional work of reflection on SA’s brand of political transition, which Du Toit calls reconciliation as interdependence. When political rivals on each side recognised that a stalemate had been reached and that without settlement both sides would lose, they sought to find each other through coming together.
This commitment to reconciliation lies deep within our political culture from the reconciliation between Boer and Brit at the start of the previous century to the rapprochement between black and white at the end of the 1980s.
What held together the SA transition was a deep commitment within our national culture to ubuntu combined with a sacred commitment to spiritual life. It was a transition marked by unforgettable gestures from the prominent role of religious figures in the Peace Accords and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to everyday acts of forgiveness played out of the national stage; in regards to the latter, think for example of Adriaan Vlok’s approach to Reverend Frank Chikane and also to the Mamelodi mothers.
The responses of the victims were forgiveness, something that lies deep within us and that defies liberal logic (the rule of law) and radical sentiment (retribution).
It is these spiritual values, I would contend, that keep us from consuming each other, and hold at bay the worst instincts of racial populists who have become more visible and more noisy on the political front. And one place to see these very human values on display is at the end of a life, the public funeral.
The recent media reports on horrific violence in schools and on campuses – such as the knifing of teachers and students alike – will not be resolved with better security or more effective law enforcement. There is something much deeper in our society that has unravelled and that is our sense of what makes us who we are as human beings.
Those founding values are taught at home and reinforced through our institutions such as schools and religious bodies. When those institutions fail in their duty to convey such connecting values, then our worst instincts such as violence and revenge kick in.
Small wonder this violence has become more common in our educational institutions. The University of Zululand, where the knifing of a roommate was avenged by a recorded act of mob justice, has been in chronic dysfunction for years. We know for certain that education, in the fullest sense of the word, has not been happening on that campus for a long time. Pushing students through intermittent classes for examinations and graduation is not education. For education is at best the learning of human competences that go far beyond technical skills and book knowledge.
This is the tragedy of education in SA today. For the majority of our children education has failed in its most basic function – the transmission of human values.