South African President Ramaphosa: Investing in education builds resilience in times of crises

published 22 November 2023 updated 22 December 2023

“It is a real privilege to address this 10th Africa Regional Conference of Education International, particularly with its focus on shaping the future of education on our continent, as well as beyond. And the theme of your conference, 'Standing together for resilient education systems in times of crises', resonates very well with various crises that people of the world have had to face in recent times.” This was highlighted by the President of the Republic of South Africa Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa in his opening speech.

A timely conference, calling for unity, resilience and decolonisation in education

While a global crisis stands out – the COVID one –, beyond that, there are several regional crises, he said. “In our case, in South Africa, we started with having to unite and work together to face a crisis in education due to the evil apartheid system. There had to be unity, and unity also of the education system.”

Acknowledging that his country “attempted and succeeded in installing a much better education system,” he also noted that in South Africa, 6% of GDP and almost 19% of public expenditure is spent on education, and “it is very high in terms of expenditure of money, trying to resolve the current situation, the past and the future. Dedication to education is quite strong in our government system.”

“Your conference theme rings so true,” he added, because “in many parts of the world, on our own continent, political instability also requires resilience, as coups are taking place in various parts of our continent. Right now, there are wars raging in Ukraine and Russia, in the Middle East, destroying the lives of innocent people.”

“I am rather glad that deliberations are going to be rooted on how you can all make the education systems resilient to be able to withstand all these crises,” the South African leader also said, explaining that “some crises have to do with climate change, some with wars, some with terrible incidences like fires and floods, that disrupt people’s lives. I do hope that your deliberations will come up with a number of strategies and actions that will enable the nations of the world, particularly on our own continent, Africa, to be able to navigate our way through all this.”

He also insisted that COVID brought a crisis of unprecedented scale, impacting not only on the livelihoods of the people of the world, from a health point of view, from an economic point of view, but also having a huge negative impact on education. “The resilience of many of you who are in the teaching field, in the education field, has steered us through this crisis,” he admitted.

Ramaphosa continued by stressing that the pandemic hastened digital transformation in a number of countries around the world and altered the patterns of work, as well as of education. “It underscored a digital divide becoming more and more pronounced. While some learners adapted swiftly to online learning, others, particularly those of disadvantaged backgrounds, experienced great challenges, and our continent can bear great testimony to this. We saw how students in rural communities and students with disabilities were disproportionally affected by this. With schooling disrupted, inequalities were clearly exacerbated.”

Further recognising that adapting to a rapidly changing world is one of the most important tasks of the day, he was adamant that this underscores the importance of the educators’ voices in finding solutions to educational challenges. “We are very pleased that we have trade unions that are vocal, that are active in our own space here. Educators play a fundamental and irreplaceable role in shaping our societies. Their insights are unvaluable in our quest for sustainable solutions.”

Speaking on decolonising education, Ramaphosa emphisised that colonialisation is a crisis many African countries “were plunged into by force. Colonialisation had a huge negative impact on many countries on our continent, and the whole process of decolonisation of education has become increasingly important.”

He added that the project of decolonising education in Africa is not just a matter of academic interest, “in many ways, it is a pressing need, and, others would say, it is a life and death matter, that we should streamline our education system of the colonial type of ideology that infected our education system. We must challenge colonial theories.”

Fund public education systems for sustainable and democratic societies

Also addressing the conference, Education International’s President Susan Hopgood recognised that “our purpose these few days is to engage in dialogue, to reflect and learn from each other and to plan ways to encourage our members to play an active role in transforming education across Africa.”

The issues facing you seem intensely local, but we know they are regional and we need to understand that they are global as well, she also said. “I am privileged to visit with our brothers and sisters in member organisations in many parts of the world and I can tell you that we are all dealing with issues like inadequate investment in education, growing privatisation and infringement of rights of teachers, the increasing casualisation of the profession, issues of pay, pension and social security and existential threats to civil society, the public sector, to democracy, and, because of climate change, threats to the very lands we live on.”

The worst of COVID may be over, but a different and more chronic sort of emergency lingers, she also observed. “That is, the crisis of the public sector; the ability of governments to maintain and advance the common good and the capacity of the people to hold their governments accountable.”

In the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Goal Four (SDG4) was clearly set to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all,” she also reminded. “Clearly set but as we know, clearly not met. This challenge is especially great in sub-Saharan Africa, where the equivalent of some 97 billion US dollars are needed to meet the SDG4 funding gap. According to UNESCO, of the 44 million teachers that will be needed by 2030, nearly 11 million are secondary education teachers that will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone.”

Where is the money? the EI leader then asked.

“Billions of dollars in uncollected taxes prevent responsible investments in the public good and in economies that provide sustainable and broad-based growth. On a global scale, Action Aid tells us the estimated annual revenue losses due to multinational corporate tax manipulation is about 600 billion in US dollars.

Large corporations and wealthy individuals are leveraging the financial system for speculation and short-term profitmaking while raising prices, hiding assets, and undermining state revenue collection.

And even though education technology at scale remains largely untested, unregulated and unproven, school systems with no input from teachers have sent billions of dollars to technology companies.”

She therefore underlined that “there is no lack of resources to fund public education, but a lack of political will to make education the priority the world needs. We need to ensure that public financing is directed to the public good – ensuring that every student has a professionally-trained, qualified, and well-supported teacher, in a quality learning environment.”

Reminding that, last September, the United Nations faced these facts and elevated education as a top global priority, she also explained that, for the first time ever, a UN High-Level Panel examined the role of teachers and the supports we need to do our work, including addressing the global teacher shortage, elevating teacher professionalism and the importance of funding. “This was a breakthrough. Your message, our message, about teachers is leading the global education dialogue. That they must be supported, valued, and paid their worth; with workloads and working conditions that support mental and physical wellbeing; negotiated salaries competitive with those in comparable professions and an end to the hiring of contract or unqualified teachers.”

Hopgood also said that “we talk about sustainability – as in the Sustainable Development Goals – with a certain degree of reverence, as more of a distant hope than a practical future. But sustainability is a bedrock principle of our trade unionism and in turn fundamental to democracy.”

The 10th Education International Africa Regional Conference, whose theme is “Standing together for resilient education systems in times of crisis”, will be held until November 24th in Johannesburg, South Africa. It brings together over 400 education union leaders from across the region to review progress made and define the future of education and the education trade union movement in Africa.