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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Change the world by relating to people.

While preparing for life in South Africa, a local resident offered this insight:

“You are coming to a country of intense bureaucracy which is close to totally dysfunctional in most sectors of public life, especially education.”

I didn’t quite conceptualize what he meant by “intense bureaucracy”, but it’s certainly become obvious. Simply put, there are moments where it feels like educators insist on impeding progress. Two examples:

-Grades. In SA schools, a 30 qualifies as passing (yes, 30/100). When confronted with poor success rates, the department of education opted to lower the passing rate to its current mark, thereby increasing the number of passing students. This maneuver provided an excuse to not address teaching standards.(1)

-Teachers. I hear stories of teachers in township schools simply leaving school on Fridays once they receive their paychecks. This touches (again) on a larger issue of teacher accountability, which might not have an easy solution.(2)

Important side note: This can change! There’s actually a great success story of a principal in Grahamstown moving from a prestigious private school to a struggling school in the township, and creating a domino effect which is slowly turning the school around. It is, truly, a source of hope.


(Notes from a recent conference: For every 100 students who begin grade R in Eastern Cape public schools, only 1 will complete some form of higher ed.)

Overall, this enforces a cycle of poor education producing poorly educated students, thus perpetuating the poor education system (since the future teachers were not adequately trained). Consequently, South Africa’s global rankings suffer.(3-4-5)

These are but a few ways in which South Africa’s education system is entangled (I could list many, many more). In many respects, performing well is the exception rather than the expectation. 

This leads me to Holy Cross School, and the overall idea of ‘changing the world’.
Holy Cross School, 2011. Photo courtesy of Stephen Smith.
Holy Cross School is a tangible outcome of the monastic community’s desire to provide education. You will find trained teachers, furnished classrooms (visitors consistently remark how well-resourced the school is), and a well-kept building. I won’t claim perfection in our day-to-day functioning (I sometimes don’t believe how dysfunctional I am!), but I will say this: The brothers were straightforward in this mission. They saw a problem, they saw how they could help, and they did it.

Holy Cross School, 2013.
The school does not claim to be the best, or to be the ‘fix’ to South Africa’s problems; it simply welcomes 42 students and gives them an education. If you find yourself drawn to hopes of changing the world and/or being part of a greater cause, I’d like to offer this piece of food for thought:

As humans, and as Christians, we change the world by relating to the people. If I was preoccupied with the grand notion of changing South Africa’s education system, I would be quite let down with my work. The most fulfilling moments of this work have come when I truly felt a growth in my relationships -with monks, teachers, students, anyone. This isn’t ignoring hopes of changing the world; this is recognizing the very real method by which you make an impact.

As Christians, we are to unconditionally love and serve all people, especially the poor (Matthew 25:31-46). You might know the phrase “to preach the good news to all of creation”; sometimes, that good news comes in the form of bread. or safe housing. or good education. Jesus himself calls us to serve others, giving special mention to children, widows, and the poor.

Side note: It occurs to me that the great commission (Matthew 28:19) is a people-focused mission. Jesus said “make disciples of all nations”, not “make nations full of disciples”. I’ll have to see if any deep revelations come of this :)

Have a great week, everyone.

The content of this post comes from firsthand experience and stories gleaned in my time in Africa. I added the citations afterwards in case you wanted to cross-check with other sources (which I’m glad you do!).

1 Phakathi, Bekezela Umalusi defends 30% matric pass mark. BusinessDay Live, 19 April 2012

2 Modisaotsile, Brenda M. The Failing Standard of Basic Education in South Africa. Africa Institute of South Africa, 72, March 2012. (the section “Teachers” beginning on p. 4 discusses teacher behavior)

3 Verrijdt, Andrew. SA ranks its maths and science second last in the world. Mail & Guardian, 7 June 2013

4 Wilson, Craig. South Africa: a nation of dummies. TechCentral, 11 April 2013

5 Mtshali, Nontobeko. Ugly truth about SA education. IOL News, 25 September 2012

1 comment:

  1. This reminded me so much of Jesse's book. The same, ongoing, continuing phenom. Have you read other African books--any Paul Theroux?