How much of a problem is inequality in education, exacerbated in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), still in South African society?
This question came under the spotlight at the most recent Social Justice Café at Stellenbosch University (SU), an initiative created by Prof Thuli Madonsela, Chair in Social Justice in the Law Faculty of SU.
The aim of the café is to engage with young people on social justice issues and human rights-inspired democracy and action for inclusion, rooted in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and National Development goals, with a view to harnessing the youth dividend in ending poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.
The keynote speaker during the virtual discussion was Seliki Tlhabane, Chief Director: Maths, Science and Techonology (MST) and Curriculum Enhancement Programmes in the Department of Basic Education. Panellists Kate Roodt, Co-curriculum Coordinator and Experiential Education advisor at SU, and Hlonelwa Luthuli, a final year LLB student, also participated in the discussion.
Madonsela, who facilitated the discussions, set the ball rolling by stating that no one should be left behind when it came to education, particularly in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
“In South Africa, your access to quality education, your ability to afford education, your ability to key into the 4IR grid, is determined by where you live, which colour your parents were born into and the economic status of your parents.
“So where are we 27 years into democracy? Have we removed financial means as an exclusion from education? Have we levelled the playing field when it comes to the 4IR? Has education been used to design policies that are more responsive to difference and disadvantage and have education policies themselves been responsive to education and different situations?"
Tlhabane responded by saying that the Department of Basic Education has put policies in place to ensure that social justice was meted out in our country's public schools.
“Since democracy, government has developed policies that are pro-poor. At the moment 80% of our schools are no-fee-paying schools. Learners receive learning and teaching support materials for free. Ninety per cent of our learners are receiving meals at school because we realised that poverty kept children out of school."
He said with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the Department adopted remote learning approaches such as online teaching and have put policies in place to ensure that every child in South Africa would benefit from these technological advances. But he admitted that these interventions have not been without its challenges, with the cost of data and the cost of electronic devices proving to be especially challenging.
However, according to Tlhabane, the Department has developed frameworks and implementation plans to ensure that by the end of the current administration every child must have access to an electronic device.
“All nine provincial departments have identified in excess of R2 billion that are going to be utilised this financial year to ensure that children have devices and access to 4IR technologies," he said. “We would also like to partner with business to ensure that children are not excluded from digital advancement because of their social economic status."
Commenting on the gains made in aligning South Africa's education system with the ideals and reality that its society face today, Madonsela said: “What we can conclude is that today is better than yesterday, but today could be better, and if we want tomorrow to be better than today we have to change the way we do things. And we have to be clear about the lessons we learnt, particularly during the time of COVID and as we face the disruptions of the 4IR. And we must use those lessons to plan better and make sure that no one is left behind."