Programme Director;

The President of Singapore Management University; Mr Arnoud de Meyer

The Academic and Administrative Community;

The Diplomatic Community;

The Student Community;

Distinguished Guests;

Ladies and Gentlemen:


Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.

An exchange of ideas on an international platform of this nature helps enhance our knowledge of the world we live in today, and with that supports creating conditions for the building of a better world.

So today I wish to address you on the topic, ‘Education as the catalyst for socio-economic development in South Africa.’ This is among the most important thematic areas to emerge out of post-apartheid South Africa on different levels.

In a society defined by racial domination for centuries, education turned into an ideological and material instrument for both the triumph and survival of the system of racial domination.

No matter how we look at it, Post-Apartheid South Africa is the outcome of a long history of socio-economic inequality based on the notion of race as a fulcrum of socio-economic organisation.

In South Africa both colonialism and later apartheid proudly embraced the ideology of white supremacy. Simply defined, white supremacy ‘…suggests systematic and self-conscious efforts to make race or skin colour a qualification for membership in the civil community.’[1]

Historically speaking, education was put to the service of white supremacy. In this regard South Africa was divided into four primary racial categories. In order of priority, this hierarchy was made up of Europeans, people of Indian descent, mixed-race people and Africans at the bottom.

Perched on top was the European category, which ruled the waves since the heydays of mercantile capitalism when the Dutch East India Company set up the refreshment station in the Cape in the mid-1600s.

The second category was made up of the people of Indian descent, who were shipped to South Africa as indentured labour in 1860 when white colonial interests realised the potential for sugar plantation in the Province of Natal. What necessitated the importation of the Indian labour was that ‘(W)hites refused to perform manual work while Africans in the areas of Natal (the Zulus) were a self-sustaining community with no need to work on white-owned farms and plantations.’[2]

The third category was made up of people labelled ‘Coloured’. This was largely mixed-raced people along the descendants of slaves from Malaysia, the African continent such as Angola and Madagascar, and the indigenous segment of South African people called the San and the Khoi Khoi, pejoratively referred to as the Bushmen.

Africans constituted the fourth and last category on the social ladder of stratification. Constituting the majority of the population, Africans were further fragmented into tribes, a concept with no pre-colonial equivalent. 

The tribalisation of Africans served the purpose of divide and rule designed to undermine the collective power of colonial and later apartheid resistance both at the national and organised labour levels in what would be the most industrialised modern state on the African continent.

The Union of South Africa was promulgated on 02 May 1910, following the Peace of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902 in the wake of the South African War (1899-1902), also called the Anglo-Boer War. The Union of South Africa was a modern state steeped in both colonial and racist imagination.

While Dutch colonialism emerged in 1652, followed by British colonialism which inspired the Union of South Africa in 1910, apartheid as a crime against humanity appeared in 1948 when the Afrikaners under the Nationalist Party ascended to power with the political agenda to elevate racism to the level of state policy. This was the onset of apartheid as it was to be known to history.

What comes out clear in the historical process of South Africa is that once policies were put in place to divide and rule in terms of the economic interests of the racial hegemony, some means needed to be devised to sustain this unequal social fragmentation across generations.

These means for maintaining inter-generational dominance was to be education, especially through science and technology. In propping up colonialism as well as apartheid later on, the racial entrepreneurs, ideologues and sociologists designed an education curriculum little more than a programme of indoctrination, a blueprint for the legitimation of the envisioned race-based society.

Apartheid social engineers created a white society whose moral conditioning and intellectual orientation took for granted the realised unequal material underpinnings of society as well as the subordination of black people. With this indoctrinatory education system, comparatively better than that of black people generally, the white youth were prepared for their future as the master race in this political imaginary.

Thus inter-generation domination was insured through the education system which evolved a white, socio-historically self-conscious community located at the politico-economic apex of society. In other words education was the inherent logic of the system ensuring the reproduction of relations of domination.

The use of education for the reproduction of social inequality is attested to by the apartheid Minister of Native Affairs, Dr Hendrick Verwoerd, who set out the aims of the apartheid education system in the 1953 Bantu Education Act, which dichotomised the education system along racial lines, thereby depriving black people of access to maths and science.

Dr Verwoerd is infamously reported to have proclaimed that it was a waste of time to teach mathematics to a Bantu (black) child because blacks would be trained to become ‘no more than hewers of wood and drawers of water’.


Programme Director;

This brief historical digression was meant to provide some basic understanding of the historical forces that shaped the form and content of the current South African society at a deep structural level.

Without some comprehension of the historical specificity of South Africa’s socio-economic contours it is virtually impossible to appreciate both the nature and scope of the effort needed to re-conceptualise society in equitable configurations.

Indeed former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill had a point when he noted that ‘the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see’.

Grappling with the social backlog of toxic education system entrenched in decades is no mean feat. Along the way there is much groping in the dark, stumbling and falling before the correct way forward can be identified.

In the process matters are not getting any better as each day wasted looking for effective solutions is one day too many.  Our challenge in the key areas of science and technology, maths and science, from the basic education level all the way to tertiary level, remains profoundly intractable given the historical landscape in which it is embedded.

For a country for which development is not a matter of choice but life and death if it is to head off instability that comes with economic stagnation and a growing army of the unemployed young people trapped in meaningless existence the pressure cannot be more severe.

Progress in moving the country out of the doldrums is predicated on investment in science and technology from basic education level all the way to tertiary institutions to equip the coming generation with the necessary tools to launch society into fully-fledged modernity.

South Africa is hampered in this regard in serious ways. Among others South Africa is struggling with maths and science teachers at a basic education level. By the time we entered into a democratic era in 1994 the backlog was too forbidding.

I made a point earlier in this address that the education system in a society is not abstracted from the political tenets on which society is based.

The logic of apartheid was to prevent Africans from being engineers, ICT specialists, mathematicians, scientists, and other professions in a society where it was the state policy to make them hewers of wood and collectors of water.

The then Central Statistics Service shows that by 1985, nine years before political freedom, Africans were the biggest population group at 27 million and whites the second biggest at 5 million.[3] Yet the education opportunities, especially in terms of science, are revealing. In that year there were 166 African engineers out of 27 million and 16 500 white engineers out of a population 5 million.

In the same year there were 15 000 white mathematicians and only 599 African mathematicians. Still in the same year there were 80 white-only technical institutions with a total of 127 000 enrolment and 53 for Africans with a total enrolment of 700. When we take into account that this number of Africans is out of a total number of 27 million, the pictures waxes even bleaker.

The results of this conscious but odious human action are telling. Today as I speak to you the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Information Technology Report puts South Africa among the lowest ranking nations in terms of maths and science. What this means is that our country is not making progress exactly in the knowledge-based domain that has the promise to lift it out of years of stagnation and under-development.

Among the baneful long term effects of the system of Bantu Education is the legacy of poor teaching in maths and science. Black teachers of maths and science are themselves products of this history. We are therefore trapped in a vicious cycle where both the teachers and the learners lack the requisite knowledge and skills.

Research confirms again and again the same set of sociological determinants that hamper progress in maths and science, all of them stemming from the under-developed domain on our country.

One such research showed that poor performance in mathematics and physical science included laboratory apparatus, teachers’ content knowledge, time management, parents’ commitment to children’s education, motivation and interest and teaching strategies.

In 2011 South Africa’s Centre of Development and Enterprises published a report that estimated that South Africa produced 25 000 teachers a year, which was 15 000 short of the number needed ‘in scarce subjects such as maths, science, commerce and technology.’[4]

This reality places enormous responsibility on government and all its social partners to pay particular attention to the education of our people, with particular attention to primary and secondary school levels.

In this regard, a few days ago the Department of Basic Education released a decidedly gloomy report about the state of teaching in our primary schools. Among others, the report states that ‘pupils are not taught to think, to solve problems or to read independently because most of their teachers do not know how to teach these skills’.

According to the report, the research also found that ‘many teachers did not know how to inculcate problem solving and analysis skills, and concluded that the “billions” of rand spent on teacher training and development in the past 10 years had failed to produce results in the classroom’.

More concerning still is the fact that these are learners at grades one, two and three; grades which constitute entry levels into the education system. This entry level is meant to set up a foundation upon which subsequent grades build in the learner’s education development.

The impact of effective teaching at this level where thinking, problem solving and reading skills for learners are meant to develop cognitive tools will be consequential in the subsequent education of the learner.

Stripped of its hyperbolic flourish, Sir Oliver Wendell’s advice that ‘a child’s education should begin at least one hundred years before he is born’ is incontestable.

The world over, much premium is put on the quality of education. Modern societies succeed or fail to the extent to which their education systems respond to development imperatives.

Nonetheless, dismal as this scenario may seem, there is a silver lining that should spare us incurable sorrow. In this regard, the fact that our Department of Basic Education has taken the initiative to launch this research into the education of our learners at an entry point is reassuring. Sceptics may wonder why this exercise was not done a little earlier perhaps. I think in matters of education it is never too late.

This turn of events gives me confidence that the department, drawing on the expertise of social partners, will duly design appropriate remedial interventions commensurate with the weighty demands of the situation.

Some of our provincial or regional departments of education are beginning to focus on the foundation and intermediary phases of learners’ education with a view to making a formative impact on the cognitive development of learners.

Our educational non-governmental organisations and other partners and stakeholders in education have begun to roll their sleeves as the spectre of disaster in the future of our education begins to loom large.

Initiatives of this nature, especially coming from education stakeholders, give us hope about the future of our education.

It does not strain the imagination to realise that any society floundering in its education system will also not fare well in terms of employment and productivity, with its economic development bearing the brunt thereof.

This then leads me to the level of education in catalysing change in society; that is, tertiary education. What role then, can post-apartheid university play in South Africa’s reconstruction and development ambitions?

Rooted in historical realities of societies they serve, universities do not just produce knowledge for knowledge’s sake, abstracted from the historical process that defines their era. Perhaps less than in developing nations, universities in developed societies do have the relative latitude for self-indulgence. Perhaps!

However, a society tangled up in developmental issues such as our own faces the real need to focus its education system on concrete social realities, without devaluing the inherently defining character of a university.

Naturally, our basic education challenges do overflow into tertiary education, for obvious reasons. Chief among them is the fact that some of the first year university students have not been adequately prepared by their basic education background.

Secondly, universities have not escaped the long shadow of apartheid legacy, with the result that some universities are simply more advanced than others.

While these and many more are real time issues confronting apartheid universities, the prime question is how will South African universities define themselves in relation to key issues facing both tertiary education and society itself?

How will the apartheid university tackle the knotty question of transformation within the context of the principle of university autonomy? How will the apartheid university wrestle with the pre-1994 race-class nexus that characterised the South African polity? 

Is it equal to the task of creating conditions propitious for the emergence of national cultural affinity and the project of social cohesion? Will it expand as well as make accessible knowledge horizon for all while working to contract the social space of ignorance?

All these questions do not mean that efforts were not made to transform universities in keeping with democratic ethos, or that universities themselves have not developed goals and initiated programmes to meet such goals in the 23 years of democracy.

I am raising all these issues because experience teaches that social change is likely to be realisable where national conversation among stakeholders is on-going, helping us evaluate the efficacy of our contributions to national goals.

What makes matters worse in this case is that the South African university is caught up in a particularly unenviable situation where it has to deal with internal issues of transformation while keeping up standards so as to remain internationally competitive as well as contribute to the external project of social change.

Further, all these issues of self-definition impinge on knowledge production, quality of teaching, research and learning, equity, participation, inclusivity and participation rates, among others. More than any social force universities are well-positioned to contribute to South Africa’s competitive and knowledge-based economy.

The Editors of  one of our national publications, ‘Shaping the Future of South Africa’s Youth’, Helene Perold, Nico Cloete and Joy Papier, argue for a more involved university sector in addressing the challenges facing our youth. Among others they state that:

  • Universities need to be positioned to play their role in the ‘knowledge economy’ and to fulfil their roles as critical drivers of social and economic development – and employment;
  • Universities must become the core of a national system of innovation;
  • Universities need to contribute to the faster growth of a ‘green economy’;
  • The goal for cohort enrolment in universities must grow from the present mean rate of 17 per cent to a mean rate of 30 per cent by 2030 (i.e. in the next 13 years).

Given the structural nature of our problems, especially in the area of education and skills base, we look to the higher education sector to rise to the challenge of human resource development and to count itself among the social forces leading the charge for social change.

Programme Director;

As a country our vision of creating a united, non-racial non-sexist, just and prosperous society will only see the light of day if and only if it is fertilised by economic growth which underpins social progress, which is in turn driven by education.

How societies shape up on the level of science and technology in their historical evolution has and will determine their levels of progress in the distant future. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has amply demonstrated the veracity of this assertion in commendable leadership of Singapore to be among the most developed societies, even outstripping some Western European nations in some regard.

The story of human progress in general is the story of science and technology. The innovation in the invention, design and modification of technology has over the years impacted on social systems in ways hitherto unknown to human history.

From the development of flake stone tools by hominids millions of years ago to the emergence of industrial revolution in the 1700s, science and technology as well as innovation have been the prime motor of history.

No modern society has scaled the heights of social progress without science and technology as the innately driving impulse. As the case of Singapore demonstrates, science and technology is a sine qua non for modernisation.

It even enables societies previously stuck in under-development to catch up with if not leap-frog those already determining the global development agenda. In other words, science and technology can very easily create what is normally called ‘the advantage of backwardness’. In this scenario, backward societies harness the progress in scientific innovations to advance their own social development without having to go through the growing pains undertaken by advanced societies.

This reality places enormous responsibility on government and all its social partners to pay particular attention to the education of our people, with particular focus on primary and secondary school levels. We need to do much more to mobilise all the resources within our reach for the task of producing quality education for both teachers and learners alike.

Only a sound and quality education system with strong emphasis on maths and science can serve as a reliable feeder for tertiary institutions, which will in turn be able to produce top-notch graduates geared to the needs of the country. Consequently such graduates can find their way into our national research institutes, expanding the cohort of researchers at any given time.

Against this background South Africa has to continue to apply its best minds to areas such as the following:

  • Exploring ways of improving collaboration between research institutes, government and business;
  • Ensuring that we conduct research in favour of public good and remain relevant to the research needs of society at large;
  • To learn how nations of comparable development levels used collaboration as well as science, technology and innovation to advance social development
  • To seek ways and means of attracting new researches as well as maintaining an improved culture of research comparable to best international practices;
  • To increase research output year on year to meet the demands of a developmental state; and
  • To look into ways of co-ordinating the work of national research institutes to maximise aggregate impact.

The widely-peer reviewed research on “Science in South Africa: The Dawn of a Renaissance?”, by  University of Pretoria’s Institute for Technological Innovation, led  by Professor Anastassios  Pouris, paints a positive picture of a growing number of highly rated research and A-rated researchers.

South Africa’s research output between 2000 and 2010 shows that the country has climbed two positions in world rankings to 33rd and has increased its peer reviewed and publishable research output from 3617 in 2000 to 7468 in 2010.[5]

Professor Pouris suggests that this success is attributable to government interventions, such as increased resource support from the Department of Science and Technology.

This is encouraging and shows a glimmer of light for our collective future.


Programme Director;

Against this background, our development as a nation, the equalisation of society and our future all hinge on the quality of the system of education. It is a symbiotic relationship where education encourages social development, which, in turn, allows for resources to be released in order to further enhance the quality of education through incremental budget allocation.

Happily our government has woken up to this existential reality and has begun work to make this education/labour productivity nexus a living reality.

The South African government has therefore established the Human Resource Development Council with a view to supporting the Human Resource Development Strategy.

By Human Resource Development we simply mean formal and explicit activities that will enhance the ability of all individuals to reach their full potential. By enhancing the skills, the knowledge and the abilities of individuals, Human Resource Development serves to improve the productivity of people in their areas of work – whether these are in formal or informal settings.

Similarly, our current Human Resource Development Strategy is designed to complement a range of purposeful development interventions. It is a co-ordination framework intended to combine the key levers of the constituent parts of the Human Resource Development system into a coherent strategy.

Of necessity therefore, the Human Resource Development Strategy spans several domains, including education, labour market, industry and society. The problems that are intrinsic to these domains cannot be reduced to one institution or policies of one government department or institution.

Rather, they impact on the collective ensemble of institutions in the system and relate to a cross-sectoral mix of government policies, private sector initiatives, higher education and other academic institutions as well as the broader society.

The Council referred to earlier is a multi-sector, multi-stakeholder and expert-led advisory group which provides an environment promoting optimal participation of all stakeholders in the planning, stewardship, and monitoring and evaluation of human resource development activities in the country.

The scope and importance of the Human Resource Development Strategy for South Africa’s development agenda dictates that its success be predicated on the full contribution of all social partners.

Government has a significant role to play in terms of its mandate and the public resources it holds in trust, but it cannot perform this role optimally without substantive input from communities, organised labour and organised business.

Clearly labour productivity is a critical requirement in economic growth of all countries, and this is all the more so in South Africa, a country still beset with insurmountable socio-economic problems.

While labour productivity in South Africa has been tied up with the history of unequal education, lack of skills and exclusion from the mainstream economic activity in the past, the shift in emphasis from mining and agriculture to service industry compounded an already festering problem.

Low levels of labour productivity are among the binding constraints on economic growth, gainful employment, and our international economic competitiveness. In the light of this multiplicity of economic challenges, what is to be done?

Without improving human resource development we are likely to see the persistence of inter-generational racial inequalities reflective of the apartheid social engineering. Seeing the nexus between education and human resources improvement enables us to reduce these odious racial inequalities incrementally.


Programme Director;

Education remains the greatest equaliser in the history of modern society. When we educate people we equip them with the tools and means not only to analyse the challenges facing society but also to extricate themselves from their miserable social conditions.

More specifically, there is now a consensus on the need for Africans to produce knowledge that not only speaks to their practical, lived conditions but to also take stock of the politics of such knowledge production and dissemination.

In this race to produce theoretical and practical knowledge conducive to the conditions of the continent, we simply cannot afford to be left behind in creating a space for all of our citizenry to access quality education.

Finally, I remain optimistic that on the science and technology front South Africa will finally seize the advantage of backwardness to draw even with the developed economies.

Through partnerships and collaborations among our two nations and others, exchanging knowledge, expertise and skills in this historical stage of forth industrial revolution, we have a unique opportunity to lift our nations to a higher trajectory of social development. I therefore thank the Singapore Management University for this invitation.

Indeed it is not pre-ordained in human history that some nations should enjoy the benefits of science and others not. It never was. It all depends on conscious human action. In this regard, Louis Pasteur reminds us that ‘science belongs to no one country.’


I thank you for your kind attention…


[1] Fredrickson, George M: White Supremacy, Oxford University Press, 1981, Pxi

[2] Van Diepen, Maria (ed): The National Question in South Africa, Zed Books Ltd, London, UK, 1988,    P86

[3] September, Ronal T: How does it work and who Benefits? The Distribution of Scientific Knowledge in South Africa, 1990

[4]  Nontobeko Mtshali: The Star Newspaper titled ‘Maths Teachers not up to scratch’, 14 May 2013

[5] ibid