Finding heroes and hope in South Africa’s education system

Teachers who sew together the fabric of our society sow the seeds of a more prosperous nation at the same time.  However, the picture of education in South Africa as it is unfolding on school grounds and classrooms across the country, is complex, messy and often not easy to witness.  What should give us hope for the potential of our children?  This article by David Harrison is an excerpt from the first issue of our new biannual publication called The Human Factor, entitled, “Do teachers in South Africa make the grade?”, which looks at South Africa’s education system from the perspective of teachers. 


My father loved his students. He is now in his late seventies, and in some ways, his life as principal of a school in rural KwaZulu-Natal seems very far away. He founded Sister Joan’s High School in 1982, the first high school for black students in that area. Until then, learners could only go as far as Grade 10. In its first year of operation, the matric pass rate was 6%. Within six years, the pass rate had increased to 94% – before the ravages of the civil war took its toll on both him and his students in the early nineties. Some 35 years later, he still receives phone calls from former students who’ve somehow managed to track him down, just to say thank you.

Without exception, they call to acknowledge his enduring influence on their lives, firstly as a role model; secondly, as a superb teacher of English and History. They speak of him as a father – often in the absence of their own – who saw worth in them and inspired them to believe in themselves. Some of these students have become leaders in their fields; most are just ordinary people making their way through the ups and downs of life. But all speak of his ripple effect into the lives of their own families, friends and colleagues.

Imagine if we could map out the extent of influence of just this one teacher! Each one of us can attest to the enormous impact of a single teacher in our lives. His story resounds in thousands of similar stories across the country; just the names and faces of the teachers are different. Good teachers are weavers of the social fabric – often unseen, far too often unrecognised.

Imagine the potential influence of the 400 000 teachers across South Africa in shaping the country’s future! Apart from parents, what more powerful multipliers of goodness and hope? What more profound agents of change?

Yet, as the stories in this publication reveal, many teachers feel demoralised and unsupported.

They feel that ‘the education department’ – not humans, mind you, ‘the department’ – blames them for poor learner performance when so many children already enter school with deep learning deficits. They feel like minions, only made worse by the ‘worker’ label that trade unions insist upon. They want to be seen as professionals, and as people. Many teachers feel cowed by the system and even by the unions who represent them. Too often, management and union are one and the same!

This confusion of roles is at the heart of the accountability problem in the education system and needs a political solution. Neither trade unions nor government can put their hands on their hearts and claim to act in the best interests of learners when their respective officials have to ask: education manager or trade unionist, which one am I today?

But there is an even more fundamental question in public education that is rarely acknowledged or even understood, that gets to the very heart of education, namely: what is the main role of a teacher? Is it to equip children for life or to get them successfully through Grade 12?

The easy answer is that these options really amount to the same thing – that giving a child the academic skills to pass Grade 12 provides them with the best prospect of getting a job and making it in life.

But, let’s test that answer against the South African reality today. Only 40% of any Grade 1 cohort successfully completes Grade 12[1]. Those young people certainly have greater opportunity, but what does it say about the majority of children who don’t make it to the finish line? That they’re failures? That they have no place in society? That they can’t contribute to a vibrant economy?

It’s a deficit story we all tell as we try to describe the roots of inequality and marginalisation in South Africa.

But in so doing, we reinforce the narrative that most young people are no-hopers. Yet they are still South Africans. They don’t just disappear. They find their way through life just as the rest of us do. The difference is that their sense of personal constraint and exclusion makes them more likely to binge drink, do crime, have high-risk sex and beat their female partners. It’s an uncomfortable reality we don’t want to talk about. It’s much easier to say that anyone can be a binge drinker, criminal, sexual risk-taker or partner-beater, which is true – except that poverty and hopelessness feed off one another, concentrating these vices in the lives of those who feel excluded.

The pyramid mentality – thrival of the brightest – that frames the way we define educational achievement just makes the situation worse. For Harry Potter fans, think of schools as the sorting hat, channelling a few into the good life while condemning the rest to a lesser life. Furthermore, those aspects of education that prepare children for the real challenges of life are pigeonholed as a life-skills curriculum that is certainly of value, but should underpin the teaching of every other subject as well.

In effect, we have a schooling system that proudly admits every child to school with the full knowledge that it is only designed for half of them.


So, what’s the alternative? Where’s the hope in this depressing portrayal of the consequences of our education system?

Hope lies in the fact that the correlation between poverty and poor social behaviour is not invariable. In fact, the mediator of crime and risk-taking behaviour is not poverty, but social marginalization – a sense of exclusion and worthlessness. If young people feel included and valued, they are more likely to contribute positively to society.

Hope lies in creating a sense of real and imminent possibility in the lives of children, because that builds resilience, reduces hazardous risk-taking and creates traction on pathways to personal growth and development. A sense of real and imminent possibility is both the catalyst and the means to redistributing human goodness.

If that sense of possibility were only derived from material satisfaction, we’d be going around in circles. It would mean that you need to escape poverty to escape poverty! However, a sense of possibility stems from other freedoms as well: the space to grow physically and intellectually; to think differently and be different; to feel equal regardless of gender, race, class or sexual orientation. These are the spaces in which we humans may develop fully.

Hope lies in the knowledge that teachers can create the spaces that nurture a sense of possibility, worth and agency.

Hope lies in the fact that over 90% of learners remain in school and in contact with teachers for at least ten years of their lives[2]. This provides incredible opportunity to build a more inclusive and prosperous society.


You may frown at my use of the word ‘prosperous’ – because I seem to have been arguing for a gentler society less pre-occupied with educational achievement and its place in the economic value chain. On the contrary, education can produce both a better society and a stronger economy. There is evidence that children who feel valued and appreciated perform better academically as well[3]. Teachers who sew together the fabric of our society sow the seeds of a more prosperous nation at the same time.

The Greek rhetorician and ‘father of education’, Isocrates, saw virtue as its main goal. He argued that the main role of educators was to nurture goodness in young people, building their powers of language and other skills necessary to negotiate their way through life. In a country where the majority of children will not complete school – and only a minority will proceed to university, we must urgently reframe our goals for public education.

We must create possibility by building a country-wide lattice of small opportunities for all, not just wide-rung ladders of big opportunities for a few. That mission starts with teachers who make children feel valued and appreciated. We need teachers who really love our children and only want the best for them. To contend that professionals should not “love” is to deny the pivotal role of emotions in facilitating learning, thinking and behaviour[4].

However, teachers can only love if they themselves feel valued and appreciated. Their opinions must be heard – not only in matters of ‘labour’ but as experienced educators. This means building networks of practice and influence that give teachers a powerful sense of profession and vocation.

There are tens of thousands of good teachers, good departmental officials, and even good trade unionists scattered across the country. They must be seen and heard. We must find ways to amplify their voices, build their solidarity and concentrate their agency as weavers of the moral fibre of our nation.


This article was republished by the Sunday Independent on 27 January 2019.  To access a digital copy of the Human Factor click here.  We are also distributing a limited number of printed copies, if you would like a copy please request one by writing to 

[1] Gustafsson, M. 2011. The when and how of leaving school: The policy implications of new evidence on secondary schooling in South Africa. Access at

[2] Grant, L. & Otter, A. 2018. Twelve years in South African schools:

[3] Serpell, R. 1993. The significance of schooling: life-journeys in an African society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

[4] Immordino-Yang M, Damasio A. 2007. We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind Brain and Education 1(1):3 – 10





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