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Education is a poverty-reducing equaliser

​I recently visited my home township of Kwa-Thema in Springs, and I came across a group of teenagers at a local supermarket engaged in a heated debate. Phrases such as tenderpreneur, white monopoly capital, white privilege and broad-based black economic empowerment were being thrown around randomly. So raucous was the debate that it attracted a sizeable crowd of curious spectators. On the one side was a group that believed that it was futile to pursue educational qualifications all the way up to university level. To justify their stance, they cited less educated but “street smart” individuals whom they said have amassed wealth by scoring tenders. Names such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs were thrown into the mix of those who have made it big without acquiring education at the highest level. “Come on guys, none of these guys have matric, so what’s the point of wasting time on degrees” rang a voice from one of the teenagers.

The young man who mentioned these names seemed to have done enough to earn the status of an instant hero whose real-life exploits were being extolled. The opposite group put up a brave and impressive fight in defending their view that education was an indispensable tool to turn around people’s fortunes, but they were drowned out. Not even a quote of Nelson Mandela’s famous quote that “Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world” was enough to sway opinion in their favour.

Amid this, I was reminded to what a special friend who is now deceased used to tell me. He liked to remind me that when one visits his girlfriend and meets her parents for the first time, he must expect to respond to several questions from the family. The most common question usually relates to the prospective bridegroom’s level of education or if he can read or write without stuttering and stumbling over his words. Till this day, I know that to be less educated can be such a limiting, or even unpardonable reality. I doubt if this posturing would have swayed the teenagers I encountered at Kwa-Thema, but given the pervasive danger of their view among many young people today, it is worth sounding the warning bell.

Before I am branded as being indifferent to inherent problems afflicting some of our less educated people, it’s not my intention here to open debates about affordability of education. Suffice to say that I subscribe to the view that the state has a duty to finance education, at least up to a particular level, because it collects taxes from its citizens. This is because citizens are the ones who vote for the very government that operates state machinery, of which education is a component. Never before in our country has access to education being more accessible.

Education as an indispensable empowering tool

There is a popular phrase which says “uganga ngami ngoba angifundanga”, simply translated, you ridicule me since I am uneducated. Generally, an educated person acquires a measure of intellectual prowess which makes them not to be susceptible to manipulation or exploitation. An educated, or learned person is largely endowed with the mental fortitude to enquire, scrutinise and interrogate almost any information that s/he encounters. He resists the temptation to be involved in a lynch mob mentality, because his or her mental faculty is so developed enough to make informed and rational decisions.

Secondly, in a country like South Africa that is experiencing a critical skills shortage, it is a no-brainer that education is an important tool of empowerment that we should all embraced. A skilled citizenry and workforce bodes well for any country, as it means a greater chance for greater economic development, which will in turn reduce the poverty levels. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco)’s Education For All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report’s Education Transforms report of 2013, education not only helps individuals escape poverty by developing the skills they need to improve their livelihoods, but also generates productivity gains that fuel economic growth. It further shows that while growth does not automatically reduce poverty, without it sustained poverty reduction is not possible.

Thirdly, a country that invests more in quality education is more likely to have a civil citizenry, which will help towards creating a harmonious society. All of these point to one issue; which is that education has the power to give, or restore dignity and pride to humanity, especially in the face of grinding poverty, stigma, marginalisation and discrimination.

Promoting the story of getting our citizens educated

In my multifaceted life as the chairman of council at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), I have been exposed to some of the finest, highly educated citizens, including doctoral scholars. Not only are they highly qualified in different fields, they are enlightened individuals who have demonstrated the ability to perceive the plain facts of life and explain complex issues affecting humanity – including those around the fourth industrial revolution and its impact on humanity, with a nobility not apparent to anyone. They have contributed to the body of knowledge in different fields, and every time I am around them, I feel inspired. The palpable feeling of belonging to the “enlightened community” was overwhelming during a recent graduation ceremony at UJ, when I noticed that there was among the audience parents and relatives of graduands. An emotional and proud moment indeed for families, considering that some of the families, if not many, have had to make sacrifices to help their loved ones secure a future. In most cases, the graduand happens to be the first in line in his/her family to have acquired an educational qualification at a university level.

As I sat in my seat witnessing the celebrations, flashes of that scene in Kwa-Thema, where the teenagers were engaged in the fierce argument about the relevance of education, played out in my mind. I couldn’t help wondering what difference it would make if UJ and other universities started inviting schoolchildren, even from primary level, to attend graduation ceremonies for them to experience such special moments. I am certain that this can be a good gesture that will not only inspire these young citizens to emulate their fellow humanity, but it would go a long way in reclaiming the culture of reading among our youth and embracing education as a special tool. This scholarly culture will enable us to produce a crop of researchers who can make scientific and medical discoveries as well as breakthroughs to help solve the complex problems affecting our country.

A scholarly culture will also help debunk the misconception that people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson are less educated. What some of these youngsters also don’t understand is that these individuals’ circumstances were completely different. Besides, their home countries are developed and have more opportunities. In our case, as a developing economy, we lack behind in many instances. To those who think that attaining higher education is a waste of time, I remind them to the powerful message of English poet Alexander Pope, that “A little learning is a dangerous thing: drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; the shallow draughts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers the brain”.

Mike Teke is Chair of Council of the University of Johannesburg and the chief executive of Seriti Resources, a broad based black owned coal mining company.

Mike Teke
Mike Teke: Chair of Council of the University of Johannesburg
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