Creativity in Contradiction

There is an emerging consensus, across of fluid groups of students and academics in South Africa, that the form and content of the curriculum need radical reform.  While this critique has implications for all fields of study, its leading edge is the Arts and Humanities.  This is a debate about what counts as legitimate knowledge, what is taught and what is excluded, and how the university connects with the needs and aspirations of today’s students.

In response, the Journal of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education has brought out a special edition focusing on South Africa. As John Higgins and Peter Vale put it in their introduction: “what we are witnessing is a living on of the past, a startled recognition that the past is not even past”. While the papers in this collection respond to this specific “state of urgency” they are also indexed to the wider critique of the neo-liberal university and the future of the Humanities more generally.

Here, there is a creative twist. Despair for the future of the Humanities across Anglophone networks tends to slip into a nostalgia for a golden age of freedom from meddling bureaucrats. But this is not a door that left-leaning South African scholars can easily open; theirs is a dark past of colonial administrations and apartheid segregation.  The result is a forward focus of possibilities and creative contradictions.

This scope of the possible is framed by Achille Mbembe in this collection.  His dissection of the drive for the decolonization of the South African university matches his parallel critique of the neo-liberal university in general:

Universities today are large systems of authoritative control , standardization, gradation, accountancy, classification, credits and penalties. We need to decolonize the systems of access and management insofar as they have turned higher education into a marketable product, rated, bought and sold by standard units, measured, counted and reduced to staple equivalence by impersonal, mechanical tests and therefore readily subject to statistical consistency, with numerical standards and units. We have to decolonize this because it is deterring students and teachers from a free pursuit of knowledge. It is substituting this goal of free pursuit of knowledge for another, the pursuit of credits. It is replacing scientific capacity and addiction to study and inquiry by salesman-like proficiency.

This could be a paragraph by Stefan Collini or Howard Hotson, writing in the London Review of Books about past freedoms that have been swept away by marketization.  But there is nothing to be salvaged from South Africa’s past.  The rhetoric of polarisation has crystalized history as the imperial gaze of Cecil John Rhodes, whose statue was toppled from its commanding position on the University of Cape Town’s campus in last year’s protests. Mbembe’s eye is firmly on the future, on the possibilities in “new diasporic intellectual networks” that could replace “the endless production of theories that are based on European traditions” with new ways of thinking.

Other essays in the Arts and Humanities special edition are assessments of the state of the disciplines:  English, Economics, African Languages, Politics, International Relations.  Their common thread is the acknowledgement that the selection and interpretation of things that matter – of what we canonise as “knowledge” – is intimately connected with who is teaching, who is learning and what is going on outside the university.

Unsurprisingly, English is at the forefront of this re-consideration, as it has been for many years:  the language of the coloniser and also, in many forms, the language of the colonized; the place of the canon in the curriculum; which authors should be included;  what counts as literature.   Here is Victoria Collis-Buthelezi:  “what then are those of us who identify as literary and cultural scholars to do today, when the very enterprise of the modern university is in crisis and our role in it is not only unclear, but becoming increasingly suspect?”. She continues by mapping out what could be called a political economy of her field of study:

The labour distribution in post-apartheid universities amongst departments concerned with the study of language have in many ways remained the same post-apartheid as before. In other words, the structuring of language and literature departments in South Africa has largely continued such that Afrikaans and English departments deal with interpretative and theoretical work while African language departments and other language departments (French, Arabic, etc) are seen, rightly or wrong, as departments of language teaching and learning. Should our departments follow other departments on the African continent and around the post-colonial world and become Literature departments, departments of literatures in English?

Such reforms would be a necessary condition in Mbembe’s “pluriversity” of the future.  His essay takes the fight beyond the constraints of any national borders, rejecting the “Africanization” arguments that he sees as compromised by the corruption of the post-colonial state. Mbembe sees the new enemy as the new global elites, obsessed with rankings, differentiation and exclusion. The opportunities for opposing these new knowledge empires lie with a “critical cosmopolitan pluriversalism”:

We will foster a process of decolonization of our universities if we manage to build new diasporic intellectual networks and if we take seriously these new spaces of transnational engagement and harness the floating resources freed by the process of globalized talent mobility.  We no longer live in an age of one-way flows of qualified human resources and capital. We therefore need to reconfigure our understanding of our own situatedness in Africa and the world and stop thinking in South-African-centric terms.

The positions brought together in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education are an early stage in an evolving and creative debate, grounded in contradictions. The rejection of “epistemic coloniality”, of the Enlightenment settlement that is the foundation of the Western university, is also a rejection of the shared set of academic concepts and conventions that enables critiques to be written and published.  And Collis-Buthelezi describes the ways in which the discomforts of history can return once the conditions for engagement have been changed:

Sitting below Rhodes and his plinth my students and I had to read Soga’s veneration of Rhodes’s ‘‘equal rights for all civilized men South of the Zambezi.’’ I cannot stress how difficult it was for most of my students to sit in that present below the feces marked Rhodes, amidst their peers debating the meaning of the hunk of rock, and read the founder of one of the native press associations revering Rhodes. It was a palpably uncomfortable yet electric class. What became clear was that the future to which Soga looked was not the present we now inhabit nor was it a future we desire.

This is the creativity in contradictions; the possibilities in new terms of debate when the nostalgia for a lost golden age is revealed as a mirage.


Victoria Collis-Buthelezi: ‘‘‘The fire below’’: Towards a new study of literatures and cultures (in English?) A letter from a literary scholar in a South African university in transition’.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 67–78.

John Higgins and Peter Vale: ‘State of urgency’.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 3–6

Achille Mbembe: ‘Decolonizing the university: New directions’.  Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 29–45






Schools that Work

Statistics reveal everything and nothing about education.

For South African schooling, the numbers reveal that, for a country that spends a comparatively high proportion of its GDP on education, we do consistently badly.  Despite innumerable interventions, key indicators, such as achievement in Mathematics, put us at the bottom of every table.  And yet these numbers tell us nothing about what happens in a classroom; little about why some schools succeed and others do not. Its not at all clear why some schools fail to meet expectations despite having all the right numbers for success, while others defy all statistical expectations, year after year.

As in other key public sectors, such as health and housing, it is increasingly accepted that the statistics must be matched with the richness of qualitative studies if they are to be properly understood.  Education professionals need the skills of the Humanities if they are to really understand what works, and why.  They need to see what emerges when the complex weave of day-by-day practice is unpicked: intersections of complex and competing priorities in local communities; dreams, fears and ambitions;  the balance between assumption and aspiration.

Here, film is a powerful medium. One of the most talented filmmakers working in this area is Molly Blank, whose 2007 documentary Testing Hope – Grade 12 in the New South Africa was, and still is, a revelation that should be compulsory preparation for anyone working in a university admissions system.

Testing Hope follows the lives of four young people in Nyanga, in the context of one school.  Building on this project, and working with Jonathan Jansen, Molly has asked a different question on a broader canvas:  what makes some schools work?

We decided to take a unique approach by using film to tell the stories of passion, determination and leadership that are taking place in South African schools. These films tell the stories of schools that shift the paradigm and defy our expectations. They are stories of determined and resilient young people who arrive at school at 6 am for mandatory study, stories of teachers who have concrete lesson plans, and committed principals who lead with a philosophy and vision that is deeply felt throughout the school.

Jonathan Jansen chose nineteen schools across all nine provinces.  Each faced distinctive and significant challenges, the kinds of things that would make statisticians look glum: poverty, gangster violence, widespread drug abuse, high rates of illiteracy, lack of basic services including water and electricity, broken homes and a high incidence of teenage pregnancy:

Why do these schools do well when every other school in the same environment under-performs? In locating the factors that make these schools not only survive but also excel, we thought we might find the seeds of hope for renewal and change in all our disadvantaged schools.

The result of this project is a handbook, intended as a guide for schools that want to learn from exemplars of success, and a suite on nineteen short documentaries. All the films are freely available, and speak for themselves.  They are listed, with their links,  at the end of this post….


The handbook that accompanies this set of films sets out the aims and methods of the project along with a set of reflections on the experience of visiting each school. Here, the observations by the school principals are particularly powerful, showing both the determination to succeed and the wall of difficulties that has to be overcome to make success a possibility.  Here is Nelson Ma’Afrika, the Principal of Masiphumelele High School in the Western Cape:

Between 2004 and 2006, the matric pass rate was between 34 and 28%. In 2007, we had an increase from 28 to 58%. Then the ball kept rolling. We made a huge jump to 81% and then to 85%. We’re striving to convert this school into an exceptional institution. A few years back, you wouldn’t have so many people having passed matric. Even those who were passing would go and work in the local industry like factories, supermarkets and restaurants. Now our intention is to produce as many learners who go for tertiary education and who will, at the end of the day, uplift the standard of living at Masiphumelele.

And here is Edward Gabada, the Principal of Mpondombini Secondary School in the Eastern Cape, a school that has also beaten the odds against success:

Sometimes you have a vision, but you feel like you do not know whether you are getting the support. You cannot do everything by yourself. There are grade 11s, up to now this year, they don’t have textbooks. Textbooks were delivered to other high schools, but this one, no textbooks. What do you expect then, in your visions, when you don’t get support? What else can I do? Nothing. I do my part, but somebody is not doing her part or his part. Our learners are losing a lot. But at the end of the year people will be expecting Mpondombini to perform.

Schools that Work concludes with a set of ten strategies for success that have emerged from these close, qualitative studies.  They include the importance of clear and consistent routines for teaching and learning, leadership and discipline, engagement with the school’s community, and that students are challenged with the highest expectations and offered the vision of a life beyond the school.  The key point here is that these strategies have been applied by gifted principals and teachers, despite their working in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  It’s people that matter; what’s in their heads, and their hearts.  Mbongeni Mtshali, Principal of Velabahleke Secondary School in KwaZulu-Natal:

There is no resource that beats a teacher. In a teacher there is everything. A teacher can even improvise where the resource is not available. They will do anything. They move mountains. They are also highly inspired to see their kids succeed in life. Yes, we do have some limited resources. But more than anything else, the resource that we can rely on is a human resource – my teachers.

The Schools that Work project, which was carried out under the auspices of the University of the Free State, is matched by similar qualitative studies elsewhere. One of these was focused on a large set of schools in Chicago, carried out over a fifteen year period.  As in South Africa, the Chicago study was inspired by examples of schools that beat the odds.  In the early 1990s, Alexander Elementary School and Hancock Elementary School,  just two miles apart, served low income families and had the worst levels of achievement in mathematics and reading in the city.  Over the following years, one school beat the odds while the second remained unchanged. Why?

To address this question, the Consortium on Chicago School Research looked in close detail at the internal workings and external community relations of a large set of schools. Because, in this study, there were the resources for including a large number of schools over a long period of time, it was feasible to look at both qualitative and quantitative indicators.  One example shows what this looks like – the probability of a school improving where the qualitative study has shown that there are strong forms of support for reading improvement.

Chicago schools

As with the South African Schools that Work project, the Chicago study identified a common set of key strategies that account for success in beating the odds.  These are a clear and coherent system for learning and teaching, good and well qualified teachers, strong ties between the school, parents and the community, a school climate that is strongly focused on students, and strong leadership.  These key pillars of success are very similar to the strategies that Molly Blank and Jonathan Jansen derived from their intense engagement with the set of successful South African schools.

Whether in Chicago, across South Africa or in any other place where the drive for education encounters obstructions that can derail any planning for improvement, the rich and complex detail of local circumstances is key part of finding viable solutions. Molly Blank’s rich documentary resources are both a key contribution, and a fine example of why the critical arts and humanities are so important.

Jansen, Jonathan and Molly Blank:  “How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work”. Johannesburg, Bookstorm, 2014.

Bryk, Anthony S  and Penny Bender Sebring: “Organizing Schools for Improvement”.  From “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago”, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

The films:

Mpondombini Secondary, Eastern Cape

Heatherdale Secondary School, Free State

Louis Botha Technical High, Bloemfontein

Phumlani Secondary School, Katlehong, Gauteng

Tetelo Secondary School, Soweto, Gauteng

Ethembeni Enrichment Centre, PE

Mpumelelo Secondary School, KZN

Velabahleke Secondary School, Umlazi, KZN

Mbilwi Secondary School, Limpopo

Thengwe Secondary School, Limpopo

Masana Secondary School, Bushbuckridge

Sitintile Secondary School, Mpumalanga

Kharkams High School, Northern Cape

Rietfontein Secondary School, Northern Cape

Batswana Commercial Secondary School, Mafikeng

Sol Plaatjie Secondary School, Mafikeng

Centre of Science & Technology, Khayelitsha

Masiphumelele High School, Western Cape

Mondale High School, Mitchells Plain



There is no such thing as free education.  The question is rather: where should the costs be met?  Should they be by the individual learner, supported by a system of bursaries and loans?  Should they be by the state, through the tax system? Should the charge be directly to the private sector, as the beneficiary of an educated workforce?   #WhoMustPay?

Given South Africa’s toxic combination of racially-defined income inequality, high unemployment and slow economic growth, any reasonably competent enquiry must conclude that the state must play a major role through the right combination of public policy, taxation and redistribution.  The difficulty lies in getting from this evident truth to an equitable and sustainable set of solutions.

This is the task of the Commission of Inquiry, created by the President’s Proclamation No 1 of 2016, which has until mid-October to report.  Along the way the three commissioners have to investigate the feasibility of “fee free” higher education and training, taking account of the “multiple facets of financial sustainability” as well as the extent of “institutional independence and autonomy which should occur vis a vis the financial funding model”.  What are the broad issues that the Commission will need to consider?

A starting point is the particular – and peculiar – quality of education as both a “private benefit” and a “public good”.

At the collective level, we all benefit from the extent and quality of education, whether seen as a human right, a matter of social justice or in utilitarian terms, as an economic advantage.  In terms of rights, the availability of education to all provides equality of opportunity.  In terms of economics, increasing participation in all aspects of post-compulsory education increases economic competitiveness and growth, putting more money in the fiscus for health, schooling, housing, welfare and other aspects of public services and infrastructure.

But education is also a private benefit.  Everywhere, universities are gateways to the professions, making individuals wealthy.  Colleges provide training and expertise for industry and services.  Many have the advantage of the “graduate premium”; the return in lifetime earnings as a multiple of the cost of obtaining the enabling qualification.  Many unlock their competences, allowing them to achieve their ultimate ambitions and objectives, whether or not these are financially rewarded. Individuals with higher education qualifications can often chose what they want to do and where they would like to live.

Because education is simultaneously a public good and a private benefit, simple market models do not work.  This is evident in the failure of reforms to student funding in the United Kingdom.  Back in 2010, the newly elected coalition government went for a market model, removing almost all teaching subsidies and tripling student fees to a maximum of £9000 a year (about R200 000 at current exchange rates and about four times the level of fees at South African universities).  To enable potential students to take on significant personal debt, the government turbocharged the student loan system.  Investing in education was likened to contributing to a pension, or buying a house; part of the capital accumulated within the household, each imagined as small and successful business.

The argument, then, was that education is an overwhelmingly private benefit, bought and sold like another service. Student customers would shop by quality, looking for a return in terms of high salaries after graduation, and forcing lesser-ranked universities to charge lower fees to make up their numbers.  The government’s model anticipated an average fee level, across all universities, of about £6000 a year.

But this didn’t happen. Students didn’t behave like customers. They turned out to have far more complex motivations than a coldly calculated return on investment.  Universities were not punished for their positions in the league tables and within a year almost all had been able to raise their fees to the maximum of £9000 without suffering a decline in registrations. Because this resulted in a far higher than anticipated call on the state loan book than had been anticipated, Her Majesty’s Treasury got an actuarial migraine that has still not gone away. The public rage against the Liberal Democrats – the minority party in the coalition that had promised to abolish fees in its manifesto – was unrelenting and cost them dearly in the 2015 election.  Justice Heher and his colleagues on South Africa’s Commission of Inquiry could start with the British model as an example of failure.

Our problem in South Africa, and the unstoppable momentum behind #FeesMustFall, is that we currently have the worst approaches to both of these key aspects of education.

Today, a place at university is unaffordable to a broad swathe of low to middle income households. Any household that earns more than about R180 000 a year is considered too “wealthy” to qualify for a state loan through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).  And a household needs to earn more than R500 000 a year before tax to be able to afford the fees and associated costs of supporting a single student at university.  Consequently, considered from the perspective of a large majority of potential students, our system looks and feels like a particularly draconian version of a neo-liberal, private benefit philosophy.  Students must find upfront fees and the majority of their living costs. In particular, they must clear their debt before they can qualify and try to get the benefits from their investment through employment.  Even Britain’s neo-Thatcherite model doesn’t go this far;  in the UK, everyone qualifies for a loan, there are no upfront fees and loan repayments only kick in with employment, and are repaid as a proportion of earnings.  South Africa’s students understand this, and they are in rebellion.

This private benefit feel to South Africa’s current student funding regime is in stark contrast with what is required in a country with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world; a skewed household income distribution that coincides with continuing racial injustice.  There are all sorts of ways of defining and describing this.  One is to allocate all households to quintiles, based on estimates of their overall income.  The vast majority of education assets, from quality indicators in basic education to National Senior Certificate results to access to higher education, are concentrated in the top two quintiles.  This is evidently wrong in terms of human rights and social justice.  It’s also bad and dangerous for free-market advocates and those whose only motivation is to stay rich and safe; no country can do well if three fifths of its population are poor, alienated and increasingly angry.

Assuming that the overwhelming case for education as a public good cannot be disregarded, what comes next for the Commission?

There are two key requirements in the 14 January proclamation.  The first is that the Commission considers the viability of “fee-free” education and training and the “multiple facets of financial sustainability” that would follow from this.  The second is that the commissioners advise on the the extent of “institutional independence and autonomy which should occur vis a vis the financial funding model”.  Each has its own complexity and downstream implications.

If the Commission assumes that there can be no new money coming into the Treasury, then will it argue that full teaching subsidies should take priority over other national priorities, such as improvements to the health service, or provision of housing and service delivery, or investments in basic education? Alternatively, if the Commission’s answer to the financial sustainability conundrum is that more public money must be raised, should this come from an increase in Company Tax, on the grounds that the private sector is a major beneficiary of publicly-funded education and training?  Should the funds come from an increase in the marginal rate of income tax?  Or should financial sustainability come from a hypothecated graduate tax, as a way of paying back from  private benefits and to the continuing public good?  Each of these is a viable option; each needs to be carefully modelled.

It’s also significant the Commission’s brief is limited to the consideration of fees.  This means that its unlikely that Justice Heher and his colleagues will have anything to say about student living costs when they report in October.  But, for many families, student costs of living are the “other half” of the problem; fee-free education will be of no use if there’s no money for accommodation, food and the basic requisites for learning.  Consequently, it’s important that there is an effective and parallel process of reform for NSFAS, because NSFAS must be able to provide bursaries and loans for living costs in a fee-free education system.

The second plank of the Commission’s work – the relationship between the financing of education and institutional autonomy – is likely to exercise university administrators as much as the current costs of education disturb families across the country.

Again, Britain in 2010 is a useful mirror. The market ideal of the coalition government was that student customers would be attracted to highly ranked universities where they would be prepared to pay top price.  This would in turn allow these universities to expand, offering more and more student places, growing revenues and expanding their market share, rather like a successful retail business.  In this model, there need be no limit to student numbers, as long as state is able to recover an acceptable proportion of student loans.  A fee-free system is the polar opposite of this.  When the state is paying all the costs of learning and teaching through direct subsidies to the universities, there must be strong central control of student numbers because otherwise the government has no viable way of predicting and managing its expenditure.

Giving the Department of Higher Education and Training more control over the allocation of fully-funded student places to individual institutions will raise a host of additional issues.  Should, for example, the state be able to pursue the objectives of the National Development Plan by allocating more places in selected subject areas (and the Humanities always loose out in these arguments, everywhere)?  How will the costs of capital expenditure for teaching facilities be met, given the very different needs across South Africa’s campuses?  How would the department respond to the continuing need of long disadvantaged institutions, or to new universities?

Whatever the recommendations that are made in October, the outcome cannot be a compromise. Simply freezing fee increases again for 2017 will destroy universities because of the inexorable march of inflation, while continuing to exclude large numbers of potential students, and continuing to subsidize wealthy households. #FeesMustFall leads directly to #WhoMustPay?

The Heher Commission is set to have a busy year.