About 15 years ago, in parliament, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on education drew attention with a very telling metaphor.

The House was then discussing yet another government assault on private school education, corralling the powers of their governing bodies and related items, in the pursuit of achieving equality of outcomes across all education sectors.

Willem Doman MP, the spokesperson, suggested to the minister of education at the time, Naledi Pandor, that the actions of the government reminded him of the owner of a motor car with a flat tyre.

“Instead of pumping up the one flat tyre (failing government schools), you flatten all the other tyres and call it equality,” he said.

In the intervening years, and despite the government’s best efforts to impede it, private education has retained its pre-eminence while the state sector has backslid even further.

Last week, for example, Gerrie Fourie,  the CEO of Capitec Bank, the one company in the teeth of a severe economic turndown that is adding both new jobs and more expansion to its impressive growth trajectory, called out government for its crashing and job-retarding failure on the education front.

He said, according to a report in BusinessLive: “Fixing educational outcomes would be fundamental to sustaining long-term growth. Out of 1.2 million children that started school in 2005, about 55,000, or 4.5%, achieved a pass rate of 50% or higher in mathematics in 2016. Only 13% did well enough to be able to pursue further education at a tertiary institution.”

Fourie, one of those rare birds in the business aviary who is actually adding jobs in the economy, then drew the obvious link between educational failure and the needs of business: “We are looking to hire engineers, data architects, business architects, chartered accountants and lawyers, but there is a shortage of these skills.”

The government solution? According the current education minister, Angie Motshekga, dropouts who leave school in Grade 9 will receive “an alternative set of qualifications”. Unemployable almost certainly, but credentialed and certified at least.

In making the announcement she stated this was part of “a world-class assessment system”. Tell that to the Marines, as the saying goes, or to desperate job seekers, under-educated and under-trained and destined for a life of destitution.

The “world-class” label slapped on this dumbing-down proposal is eerily similar to descriptions of the next instalment of the flat-tyre syndrome evoked in parliament all those years ago. It is the sort of claim being made about the proposed National Health Insurance, which our president recently advised will be imposed, “whether you like it or not”.

A reality check, however, was provided by The Citizen newspaper this week, which reported that the pilot phase for the NHI  in Mpumulanga – a five-year test to see whether this ambitious scheme could survive contact with reality and be rolled out nationally  – “has been a shambles. It cost R4bn and it was characterised by no medication, long queues and chaotic filing.”

The newspaper’s witty headline (“If this is the future of NHI, it looks desperately ill”) simply underscores the grim reality facing all South Africans going forward.

Why, in the face of so much evidence, so many instances of avoidable failure and scores of missed opportunities to import the best of private-sector excellence into instances of state failure, does the government proceed helter-skelter down the path to perdition?

At one level it is a simple case – to borrow a phrase – of “ideological overreach and capacity underreach”. But what then is the thinking behind avoidable disaster areas, which blight children’s futures and threaten, literally, the nation’s health and wellbeing?

One very compelling and extensively well-researched answer arrived last week, penned by the editor of Politisweb, Dr James Myburgh.

In meticulous detail in an article published on its website, entitled “Transformation is killing South Africa”, he draws an essential distinction between the ANC and its fast ally, the Chinese Communist Party, which this week celebrated the 70th anniversary of its rule.

“In China, communist party cadres are evaluated according to how successful they are in promoting economic growth in their regions. In South Africa all institutions and businesses are judged on scorecards measuring their diligence in progressively attaining pure racial proportionality and in forcing those below them in the economic food chain to do the same.”

Going back to 1996, Myburgh cites how more than 77,000 civil servants, often the most skilled but of the wrong demographic, were encouraged to leave the public sector, usually induced with “severance packages”.

“These packages,” Myburgh writes, “often proved most attractive to the highly skilled, ambitious and hard working; those best able to pursue their careers in the private sector or abroad. The immediate effect of the loss of know-how was to progressively degrade the ability of the state to execute functions of medium to high complexity – such as teaching higher grade mathematics to schoolchildren … ”

The intellectually lazy, thought-blocking response to this critique would be to label it “an attack on black excellence” or “anti-transformation”.

Actually it is neither. It is a direct and searing analysis of what went wrong right at the dawn of democracy here.

In 1994, the ANC inherited a racially unequal and deeply divided society. It had a choice: use the state to perform its core functions aimed at advantaging the most disadvantaged, who were overwhelmingly black South Africans. In one sense that has been front and centre of all ANC initiatives since.

But it had a choice in how to tackle this huge task: it could have used the tools of experience and the very beneficiaries of past discrimination to create, through excellent public education and expanded, well-run hospitals for example, “the better life for all” promised in its election slogan.

It could have defined transformation as a commitment, indeed imperative, to commit and practise the constitutional imperatives of equality, non-racialism and human dignity, in which there were many takers from all communities.

Instead, the government chose to narrow the definition and reduce the sum of all aspirations to a racial zero-sum game. And we are counting the cost of proceeding down this blind alley. Only a course correction can avert the crash.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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