Where are the hot-heads at the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and the other teacher unions? We need them to stop Angie Motshekga in her tracks. She quietly slipped out of the country last month and headed for Kenya. That was only a couple of months after a son of that country had been named the world’s best science and mathematics teacher. One would have thought she and her entourage intended to pick the brains of his bosses at the Education Ministry, given the lacklustre performance of South African learners in these two crucial subjects. But no, she had other ideas.
It has come to light that the purpose of the trip was to advance her petty project – the introduction of Swahili, the East African lingua franca, as an elective subject in South African schools. While she was there, she signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with her host, Kenyan Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha, which the Kenyan media described as South Africa’s “next step in fully integrating Kiswahili as an indigenous language to promote unity and social cohesion with fellow Africans”. They did not stop there. One journalist commented: “This is part of a broader movement among many African countries that are looking to reform and critically assess their education systems when it comes to language teaching.
“Indigenous languages have been phased out over time in favour of foreign languages. The reason given was to keep the African student ‘current’ and capable of navigating on a global scale. Now governments are questioning the wisdom of dispensing with indigenous languages in school curriculums and inadvertently fuelling their extinction.”
This must have been music to the ears of Motshekga, who remarked after the signing ceremony: “The MoU will make it possible for learners in South Africa to take up Kiswahili as an optional language besides French and Portuguese.”
To the Kenyan scribe who waxed lyrical about Motshekga’s intended move, I say: Swahili might be an indigenous language in Kenya (I am not 100% sure about that), but it certainly is not in South Africa. If the Minister is really worried about language preservation, she should focus her energies on our own – 11 of them, no less.
I have said in this column times without number that it is an indictment that kids from countries that are many times less endowed than South Africa perform far better than our kids in international rankings. One of the more high-profile rankings, published by the World Economic Forum in 2014, ranked South Africa last out of the 148 countries whose quality of science and mathematics education was assessed.
This is quite serious. According to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), “mathematics is the foundation upon which all disciplines rely”. That is why we need to fix our underperformance, instead of seeking to raise our pan-Africanist profile by making our kids learn a language they will probably never use in their post-school life. I mean, what is the probability of a South African kid settling in a country like Tanzania, where the founding President, Julius Nyerere, proclaimed Swahili a national language to forge national unity in this East African country of more than 100 distinct ethnic groups?
What Motshekga should be doing is precisely what the likes of Wits are doing. Last year, the university launched the Wits Mathematics Competition, which aims to enhance the mathematics competence of learners from the senior primary phase to the further education and training phases, as well as undergraduates. Ninety-five schools and four universities participated in the first iteration of the competition, which, the university believes, will, in turn, enhance the standard of research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields at local universities.
I think the Minister’s trip to Kenya would have yielded greater benefit had she attempted to find out what it is that the East Africans are doing right to ensure a decent quality of science and mathematics education. Our schools have the potential to be up there with the best. But the Minister seems to be hell-bent on this pursuit of hers. Perhaps I should start improving my Swahili. So, Nzuri bye (good bye).