Contact  About  Links 


Towards Centres of Cultural and Educational Excellence


Home Schools Alumni Speeches ZK Matthews Annual Reports

Lecture given by Archbishop Ndungane at the UCT Summer School on 19th January 2010

'Education: The Treasure a Thief Cannot Steal'. This was later published in the March 2010 edition of The Thinker magazine under the title: 'Education: The Horseshoe Nail of a Nation'.

Good afternoon to all of you and thank you for coming to this lecture. Before I begin, I would like to tell you a short story about education. I found this story, as one finds almost everything nowadays, on an e-mail –I call myself BBC: that is, born before computers, but I am, at least, able to access e-mails.

According to a news report (claims the e-mail), a certain private school in Brisbane, Australia was recently faced with a unique problem. A number of 12-year-old girls were beginning to use lipstick and would put it on in the bathroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints.

Every night the maintenance man would remove them and the next day the girls would put them back. Finally the principal decided that something had to be done. She called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the maintenance man. She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian who had to clean the mirrors every night (and you can just imagine the yawns from the little princesses). To demonstrate how difficult it had been to clean the mirrors, she asked the maintenance man to show the girls how much effort was required.

He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it.

Since then, there have been no lip prints on the mirror.

This story effectively demonstrates that there are teachers….and then there are educators.

In South Africa, we are currently witnessing a calamity. You will all have heard through the media about the appalling 2009 matric results which are two percent lower than last year and which have apparently given Minister Motshekga and members of her department “sleepless nights”.

We should all be having sleepless nights because in the most recent matric exams a frightening 228,747 (two hundred and twenty-eight thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven) pupils failed, and eighteen schools did not achieve a single matric pass. It’s all very well for the Director-General to say that they can rewrite, but we know that very few of them will actually do so.

Two hundred and twenty-eight thousand, seven hundred and forty seven young people – from 2009 alone – at home or on the streets with nothing productive to do, doomed to poverty and a life on the margins of society, caught in a most vicious and inescapable cycle. I am surprised that there is not more crime in our country.

On top of that horrifying statistic, many more school leavers obtain only mediocre passes which make them fit for neither employment requiring high level skills – since they do not qualify for tertiary education – nor for unskilled labour. Young people with only secondary school education make up a large percentage of those that are unemployed in South Africa; and as Mamphela Ramphele writes, in her book Steering by the Stars: “Unemployment remains the biggest thief of hope among young people”.

The public school system in South Africa, responsible for more than 96% of mostly black and coloured South African pupils, is in trouble and has been in trouble for far too long. Educationist and author Graeme Bloch writes in his latest book, The Toxic Mix, published in 2009: “The stark reality is that some sixty to eighty percent of schools today might be called dysfunctional”.

The question one finds oneself asking is: Why is this happening? After all we have been a democracy for 15 years and we have one of the most advanced and humane constitutions in the world, a constitution that promises, among other things, equal rights to education, so why can’t we get it right?

Educationists and other experts have theorised and debated extensively about the past causes of the present situation and what has become apparent is that there is a confusing array of mostly accurate answers. I will not go into detail as they have been much discussed in the media and besides, we cannot change the past.

But there is absolutely no doubt that we are being increasingly hamstrung in many ways and I would go so far as to say that education is a national emergency.

So the bigger question here and now is: How can we fix it? Like all emergencies it requires hands-on by everybody. We must all look without blinkers at the present, roll up our sleeves, stiffen our spines and start working for the future.

I think we must first draw a picture of an excellent school, so that we have a goal firmly in mind.

Our picture of an excellent school probably looks like Bishops, St Mary’s, Westerford or Inanda Girls’ Seminary near Durban – all beautiful and well-resourced schools that offer a multitude of choices and possibilities to their pupils. They offer smaller, manageable classes, strong principals, well-trained, dedicated teachers, libraries, science and computer labs, educated school governing bodies, involved and supportive parents and so on.

The majority of public schools, on the other hand, have limited resources: large, unwieldy classes, under-trained and underpaid principals and teachers, no libraries or laboratories, few textbooks, sometimes apathetic or unskilled school governing bodies and uninvolved, absent or even dead parents. Pupils here are often deprived in the most basic sense. They are deprived of adequate food, clothing, shelter, security and love.

So there is a huge divide to be bridged between our excellent schools and the schools that are the reality for most South Africans. It seems impossible, given the disparity between rich and poor, to bridge it without a revolution and a radical re-distribution of the country’s wealth - and I very much doubt that will happen.

And yet, and yet… we hear and read stories in the media of a handful of schools, serving poverty-stricken communities, that somehow overcome all these disadvantages and succeed in producing hundred percent matric pass rates, and respectable numbers of school leavers eligible for tertiary education; schools such as Inkamana High School in deep rural KwaZulu-Natal which I recently visited. How do these schools succeed without the beautiful buildings and facilities the well-paid staff and the well-off parents?

Raymond Ackerman recently wrote a book entitled The Four Legs of the Table which describes the four, equally strong, supporting legs of a truly sustainable retail business. My four answers are, I believe, the four support legs of our education table. The few poor schools that are succeeding against all the odds prove that – although they are nice to have – you do not need attractive buildings and unlimited resources to make a start and to make your mark. Only once the “four legs” are strong should one start to look at improving other resources.

I believe the answers lie firstly in strong and visionary leadership, secondly in the dedication and quality of teachers, thirdly in the provision of basic resources, for example: textbooks, libraries and comfortable desks and chairs, and fourth in committed community involvement.

Now I would like to tell you about a non-governmental project in which I am involved, which is dedicated to the uplifting of education: The Historic Schools Restoration Project.

I’m sure you have all read the Summer School brochure but, just to remind you:

In 2006 I was appointed to champion this project by former Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan. He had decided to address the restoration of currently under-resourced secondary schools established in South Africa by Christian missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A fertile ground for schools had been created by the promotion of literacy by the African prophet, Ntsikana, and the mission schools consequently were accepted into the communities in which they were built. In some cases, land was given for the schools by local chiefs.

These “mission” schools became solely responsible for the formal education of black children and became centres of excellence in education in South Africa. Although the missionaries tried in many cases to impose an alien morality on the local population and to some extent undermined the basic cultural and social tenets which already existed, nevertheless the content of the education taught was European and modern and brought necessary skills to communities increasingly more in contact with the outside world.

Furthermore the missionaries pioneered the writing of African languages, beginning with translations of the bible. This together with the development of printing presses and libraries (most notably at Lovedale, Ohlange and Kuruman Moffat Mission) led to the development of a vibrant African literature.

Cultural activities were encouraged and the dual medium of English and African languages produced outstanding scholars. The schools became incubators of black leaders in all fields and even beyond South Africa’s borders and well-run boarding establishments enabled pupils to attend from as far away as Nigeria.

Sir Seretse Khama and almost his entire first cabinet of an independent Botswana were educated at Tiger Kloof Educational Institution, situated in what is now the North West Province. Many of South Africa’s liberation leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Albert Luthuli, Ellen Khuzwayo and Govan Mbeki were also graduates of mission schools.

Christian and universal values, were strongly promoted by the schools, such as discipline, integrity and responsibility to family and community. Many of the schools included teacher training colleges, ensuring a continuing supply of vocational teachers and most of them contained boarding establishments. The schools’ reputation was enough to ensure that they were always full, that parents scrimped and saved to ensure their childrens’ education and that many traveled great distances to attend these centres of excellence.

Then apartheid reared its ugly head and Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, decided that black South African children should be educated to a level where they could aspire to nothing more than to become “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. The Bantu Education Act was promulgated in the early 1950’s and most of the mission schools and training colleges were forced into closure or into a long slow decline.

Some still survive by the skin of their teeth. For example, the once-proud Methodist institution, Healdtown, alma mater of Nelson Mandela (and the place where he learned to box), is a shell of its former self. After being forced to hand over control to the Bantu Administration Department in 1956 it was later taken over by the Ciskei government. In 1976 the students rebelled and burned down fourteen classrooms and other buildings – making it one of the first schools outside Soweto to join the student uprising sweeping the country.

Since the 1994 elections the school has been re-opened and educational renewal and the restoration of buildings began. Sadly it stopped short and the school today survives with the minimum of deteriorating classrooms, no boarding facilities, no library, no laboratories and only around a hundred pupils due to the depopulation of local villages, as people – desperate for employment – flock to the larger centres. In 2009 only six matrics, out of a possible 20 passed – one of whom gave birth to a baby during a weekend between two papers! There were no university entrances.

Other former “mission” schools have already begun their revitalization process. While I was Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman, I, together with various alumni and other community leaders, sat on the board responsible for driving the rebuilding of Tiger Kloof. Today it has a fully functioning primary and secondary school and further academic and infrastructural development continues. The pass rate since 2004 has been in the 90 percent range.

So all is not doom and gloom and there are little pockets of improvement all over the country which prove that it can be done!

In 2007, the Historic Schools Restoration Project (a Section 21 company) was officially launched and I became Executive Director. We received start-up operational costs from the Department of Arts and Culture and endorsement for the project from the national Cabinet.

The overarching goal of the Historic Schools Restoration Project is to facilitate the restoration of historically significant secondary schools across South Africa to their former glory.

As our mission statement says, we aim “to revitalize the rich heritage of the historical schools and transform them into sustainable and aspirational African institutions of educational and cultural excellence.”

As there are more than fifty such schools, most of which are severely under-resourced, this is an enormous task. But, I always say that to eat an elephant you must take one bite at a time, so we are concentrating our initial efforts on nine pilot schools in four provinces in various states of repair.

We decided from the beginning that our restoration would involve a two-part approach: The Physical restoration and the restoration of educational excellence.

Many of the school buildings and infrastructures are in a bad state of repair. The physical restoration process will address the refurbishment and repair of the historic buildings – many of which have official heritage status – and will provide adequate water, sewerage and electrical infrastructure. It will also see to the upgrading of existing, or provision of new classrooms, laboratories, libraries and staff housing.

The boarding facilities of these schools must also be restored. This is partly to address a sad truth about our present day situation: that there are many orphaned children in our country who need schools to play a parental or family role in their lives, as they have no-one else. But it will also allow children from outside the local community to attend, where there is space.

We are determined to make these schools open to any child, no matter how poor and, to this end, have started the Z.K Matthews Educational Trust, which will help fund bursaries and subsidies to allow as many children as possible access to excellent education.

Where lack of proper facilities prejudices effective learning we will do our best to intervene. For example, St Matthew’s, another of our schools in the Eastern Cape, had to close for a time during 2009, because of health issues around the water and sewerage reticulation systems. St Matthew’s is one of the few schools that still offers boarding facilities – although to girls only.

We, together with a partnership organization, the Calabar Foundation, have worked on raising the funds to address this and other basic needs. We have almost succeeded in raising the R8 million (eight million Rands) necessary, half from a corporate donor and half from the Eastern Cape Provincial Government which we persuaded to match the corporate donor amount.

The educational excellence restoration process will include the restoration of important cultural and artistic activities – many of which were marginalized and ignored during apartheid. It will concentrate on means and methods of upgrading the quality of school leadership and administration and the quality of teaching. It will also promote the acquisition of teaching resources, such as laboratory equipment, computers and library books.

I go back to what I believe are the essentials and my earlier point of the four legs of the table of educational excellence. To remind you, they are:
  • Strong visionary leadership
  • Dedicated teachers
  • Enough basic resources, and the capacity to use them efficiently. and
  • Community involvement and support
I have found that everything I have read recently about education supports the idea that both leadership and teachers are key. For example:

Ann Bernstein from the Centre for Development Enterprises wrote in a recent article in The Cape Times that “Teacher quality is the most important lever for improving pupil outcomes”.

Graeme Bloch writes in his book The Toxic Mix: ‘Getting teachers right is priority number one if schools are going to work’.

Doron Isaacs, the co-ordinator of Equal Education, an organisation advocating equality in the South African education system recently wrote in Business Day: “Most vital of all are skilled teachers, a diminishing resource requiring large investment by government to revive and replenish”.

But good teachers without a strong, guiding principal are also likely to under-achieve. Mamphela Ramphele wrote in her book Laying the Ghosts to Rest: “The leadership and management qualities of the principal are vital, as is time management including punctuality by teachers and pupils. Critical-focus areas of leadership by the principal are: guiding teachers in delivering the curriculum; planning, monitoring and evaluation of performance, provision of stationary, textbooks and other learning aids; and support to teachers to improve their knowledge base”.

At Healdtown the Historic Schools Project has managed to install a new Principal, who comes from the private school sector, and who has begun the long, hard task of restoring educational excellence.

In terms of resources, Doron Isaacs, wrote “…ample evidence from national and multi-country studies over the past decade demonstrates that a range of resources – particularly textbooks and library books – are indispensable. Researchers such as Servaas van den Berg [Economics Professor at Stellenbosch] and Nick Taylor [from JET Education Services] have reached similar conclusions, noting also that the capacity to use resources efficiently is essential”.

Lack of knowledge of how to find something in a library must certainly be crippling.

On community involvement and support: I would first say that one of the skills of the principal and governing body should be the ability to include the wider school and surrounding community in the operations of and some decisions made about the school.

We, at the Historic Schools Project, have identified community buy-in as a non-negotiable. This is partly because we know that achieving it will give them a stake in the process and partly because we want the schools themselves to share their resources, such as halls and sports fields with their communities.

Some already do this. I have heard of one school in Soweto which successfully shares their new library with the community. During school hours, the pupils use it, and after school hours it is open to the community. I have visited many schools where this system could be introduced – if there were proper, staffed and resourced libraries.

When I consider how education in this country will be rescued, an image comes to mind of the evacuation of Dunkirk, when every available English boat travelled across the Channel to rescue soldiers. Among our existing fleet The Historic Schools Project sails its own small flotilla and I would urge all of you to come on board, doing whatever is within your power to get our education back to where it should be.

We can all do something and everything helps. It is the little drops of water that wear the stone away.

(The Archbishop then showed a promotional DVD about the Historic Schools Project)

      Copyright © 2007-2023 Historic Schools Restoration Project