About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

10 Nov 1999: Asmal, Kader

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM. I know your time is always at a premium. I met yesterday with Helen Zille who I've been talking to for over ten years and seen her move from one place to another and who impressed me in terms of what she wanted to achieve in terms of educational advancement in the Western Cape. Looking at the overall picture would it be fair to say, start from the point of saying, that you inherited a mess, that education at most levels or most important levels in this country were simply not working and that this is a matter of primary urgency?

. I would like you, first of all, to give an assessment of what you require of it, what the sources of those problems in the system were that could not have been dealt with over the last 4½ years, what steps will be required to bring about in a reasonable period of time the kind of educational system that will generate a skilled workforce. Then I also want you to put that in the context of something else I'm working on, which I'm very deeply interested in for years, since the mid-eighties, and that's AIDS. At the moment I'm editing a book on AIDS, the Social & Economic Consequences of AIDS. I want to talk about AIDS in education, in the schools and in a more broad term of whether or not this country, this part of the world has come to terms with the fact that it's not facing a pandemic but that in fact it's facing a plague and if they want to unite around it –

KA. Actually we can end this interview now because after one month listening, I met 120 organisations in June and July, I was appointed on June 17th, and on 27th July after five weeks of meeting 120 organisations, this Call to Action I published, you can quote me exactly as you want from this. There everything that you want to know is there and you can quote this as me.

. Helen Zille and I have very little in common, our perspectives are totally different, our understanding of our inheritance is fundamentally different and her understanding of the problems that we face is deeply flawed.

POM. I would like you to comment on that because she is one of those whites that are spoken of as an English speaking white person in the Democratic Party who feel 'I've spent my whole life fighting against apartheid.' So I would like you to just say where you think she's coming from.

KA. There are no reparations for anti-apartheid positions. We come from totally different fundamental – our assumptions are different. The whole South African education system, whites and blacks, is dysfunctional. For whites it is a grammar school system which prepared them for industry and for university. It didn't prepare them for a role in SA in keeping with their own status and position. Helen Zille is one who will have a largely Anglophonic, middle-class approach and I don't think she can understand the element of deprivation that blacks suffer and coloureds suffer. So we start off from fundamental different assumptions. I can, in fact, engage in combat with the unions, and particularly the SA Democratic Trade Union because it was set up in the process of struggle, because I come with a similar emotional and philosophical assumption than she does. So when I speak tonight we're going to talk about how we can set up a South African educational system. An educational system for SA as our constitutional arrangement of 1994, as I said to Princeton Lyman, owed very little to external forces. We now have to take into account the needs of globalisation in SA, as far as the effect of globalisation is concerned. And that is why I wrote that highly trenchant and critical pamphlet which is now the policy.

. What we inherited in 1994 was both in terms of structure and policy a deeply-riven apartheid structure. There was education for whites conducted by the provinces. The National Department didn't exist for whites. Then for the whole of SA, for Africans there was a Department of Education & Training with a white minister. That was for Africans in white SA. Then for Indians and coloureds there was a National Department of Education, the House of Delegates, this was called 'Own Affairs', you may remember it now. Then, of course, the so-called ten homelands, they all had their Education Departments – for ten homelands, four of which were independent. So the first task was to bring 17, 18 departments together, to set up a national Department of Education, but under the constitution of 1993 primary and secondary school education, special education and adult education is a matter for the provinces, and we had to set up one national department and then transfer all functions concerning primary and secondary school education which were performed by 17 departments to nine provinces. All that was done within 12 months.

. So we have a national Department of Education whose function is policy formulation, norms and standards under the constitution, supervision of the norms and standards. The third level of universities and technikons they come underneath me but I respect academic freedom which is a constitutionally, legally prescribed formula. So I have very little executive function. My powers are persuasion, cajolery, a bit of pressure to implement, but the heart of the education system is conducted by provinces. That's our solution which is a fundamentally flawed approach. So I have authority to work out, after intense consultation, syllabuses, age of examinations, the practical arrangements about the school year, all that.

POM. Has this been achieved since you have taken over or was this under Bengu?

KA. No, no, since 1994. Then what's happened from 1994 to 1999 was the adoption of basic policy positions, basic policy positions on norms and standards of schools, the National Education Policy Act, National Schools Act. Within two years there was a wonderful Commission of Enquiry into higher education and the passing of the Higher Education Act. I think SA is the first country in the world that within four or five years on every aspect of education has a legislative, legal and legitimate position. The only areas not touched by legislation are early childhood education, what you and I would call pre-school education, and special education which used to be called education for the disabled. Otherwise everything has a legislative framework and particularly we have, I think, the most developed Qualifications Authority to look at qualifications for different areas. So the legislative position is there. Then SA inherited the grammar school system, or pedagogy, where they had the teacher as a controlling factor. Well my predecessor adopted and pushed through outcomes-based education where you look at the result of education, so the syllabuses are different now; you don't teach history and geography as such. It's clean, thematic areas, eight or nine thematic areas..  (Recording fades out).  … this is the family silver worth billions and billions of rand, has transferred them to white hands and so we had to unscramble that, bring them back to the state hands.

. Then under the constitution we had provisions about education (you can look them up), very important provisions because constitutionally we respect private education norms. Unfortunately private education does not mean primary and secondary school education, it also means university education so we have a plethora of international bodies coming to SA now setting up these private colleges.

. But the important thing was we had the right policies but in 1994 you had two educational systems, for blacks (Africans) and for Indians, coloureds and whites and certainly for whites from the point of view of physical conditions, possibly the best physical conditions of the public school system anywhere in the world. You have just got to see it to realise that. Some of the poshest schools in Cape Town are state schools, not private schools. For blacks, as I point out there, they are dysfunctional. This is what I inherited in June.

POM. By blacks you mean Africans?

KA. Africans I mean, yes. 60% of the school buildings aren't fit for human beings. 30% of them have no water, 35% of them have no sanitation, 60% have no electricity and these are just physical things. 60% of the teachers are unqualified or under-qualified. Seven African schools account for all the matriculation at higher level passes in SA. Seven out of ten, twelve thousand. Science and mathematics teaching is either non-existent or people going through the routine of teaching things which they don't understand themselves. So we have a classic situation of a totally dysfunctional educational system.

POM. Is this just encumbered also by the fact that you have nine provinces, some of them composed of large areas of former homelands or independent states?

KA. Absolutely. Northern Province, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga.

POM. So the standards between, qualities between - ?

KA. No, no, the pathology of the homelands is reflected in the educational system but they don't have management systems. The most important part of management is not the high management, it's the middle management and that black universities don't have middle management so they're in a permanent state of crisis, black universities. The schools, because the school system was illegitimate, there is no functioning form of discipline among black schools. This is why Ms Zille has no answer for this. She thinks that she can talk about quality education which is a kind of a private school education in the state schools, full of blazers and ties. She calls it 'quality education'.

. One of the things that we have to look at now which is very important, which the USA, Britain and France who have racial minorities don't look at, is that we have now formal equality in schools, like in the US. What we have is large-scale informal racism and chauvinism in the schools. So I am embarking now on education for diversity because what has happened is that many of the black parents have taken their children away from the township schools to the former Model C schools. My old school at Stanger was an Indian school, that's why I resigned, I wanted to teach kids. 60% of the children there now are African. The ethos, philosophy, mores, are the mores of 1993/94 as if it was an Indian school. You can't run – you can't impose cultural, which Ms Zille would want to do, impose a particular approach to life on children who come from a different background. So we must create a national morality for schools, forms of behaviour, forms of work, approach to work and all must be done on the basis of working it out, not in fact what Zille would do and the principal of my old school would do. This is how we run the school, this is how we're going to do it and this is going to be an explosion. A white principle says a Muslim girl can't wear trousers, often Orthodox Jews don't allow the women to wear dresses or can't wear the chador. You can't have that in the multi-cultural society in SA.

. The language policy is very important also, which we don't have time to go into because we subscribe to mother tongue instruction, but it means therefore that if a school is going to be Afrikaans instruction in the rural areas, they are the only schools there and there are not enough white Afrikaners to go to the schools. That's why I had to introduce legislation to allow for amalgamation of schools because in the Cape Town area, in the Northern Cape (which Ms Zille doesn't talk about), often in the rural areas there's a wonderful white state school, a run-down coloured school which is over-subscribed, under-subscribed white school and they will meet. Africans then want to study in their own mother tongue in these schools too and of course this is a sensitive matter because we don't want to do what the English did, they imposed English on all Afrikaners. So what I try to show there is that we want an education system for the 21st century. It will require, of course, to build up the physical conditions, a vast amount of investment. We've spent about a billion rand so far in building up the schools. We're going to spend six or seven billion just to bring up the schools to a par. This is the African schools. We're going to spend a vast amount of money for in-service training and that is why our macro-economic policy has to take this into account because we want education where people have skills for a technological age because if you're not in the loop for technology you're out. It's quite different from when I was at school, I've got an Arts degree and I still can't use a computer or a typewriter. If you can't there's no future for you now.

POM. Only girls learnt to type in Ireland.

KA. Yes. Not very well either. So there you are, that's the answer to you for education. But what we are now doing in the next five years is consolidation and taking tough decisions. We've got to amalgamate universities, transfer functions. Universities are real products, apart from Cape Town and Wits possibly, the old apartheid structure is there. They are a result of the so-called apartheid landscaping. It's a euphemism that every homeland had to have a university, a training college and an airport. These were visible signs of so-called soft … and now we have to undo it. There are also five universities out of twenty six that teach through the medium of Afrikaans. I have to deal with this because automatically there's an exclusion of Africans or they wouldn't qualify. So in the American and British, European terms, you can have direct discrimination, which is illegal now, which means no blacks or Jews or Catholics apply. Indirect discrimination is where fewer of that group would qualify to obtain the benefits. So indirect discrimination is if you have a language stipulation, Africans don't study Afrikaans outside Northern Cape and this province, then they won't qualify to get into university so I have to grapple with that. Basically what I have to grapple with is how to make every level of education a functioning kind of –

POM. Let's just concentrate on language for a moment. There are eleven official languages. One hears more and more about just taking Afrikaans, the marginalisation of Afrikaners, as Afrikaners would see it, of Afrikaans, that on the aeroplanes they now only give instructions in English when it comes to safety standards; you have Maduna saying perhaps in the courts to make them more efficient they should just have records kept in English. I was talking to a doctor in charge of a hospital here in the Cape area and he says most of their circulars now only come in English from the state structures. Afrikaners' feeling is that their language is being marginalised and then you have this document signed by 24 leading Afrikaner intellectuals saying their culture was being marginalised, there was the need for a charter of minority rights. How do you equate the understanding that at a global level it's English that counts, the English have won that war?

KA. There can't be. We don't come as English chauvinists.

POM. I know that but I'm saying that it's the language of international –

KA. But it's not. The only language I know and I love and I dream in English but I don't want to impose it on anyone. That's not for us. Mother tongue instruction is enormously important. I said this in parliament the other day. Mother tongue instruction doesn't mean that Afrikaans must have parity or supremacy. There are eleven official languages. What are downgraded are the African languages and the constitution talks about parity of esteem and that is why when I go out to speak anywhere if it's a largely Afrikaner audience I will speak in phonetic, I write it down in phonetic Afrikaans. When I renamed the great dams, the first change in SA, the Verwoerd Dam was named the Gariep which is not an English name or an Indian name or ANC name, it was a San name, the wilderness, I spoke in Afrikaans. The first time I ever spoke as a minister I spoke in Afrikaans. Of course the Afrikaners loved it. But you see their love is largely to say that Afrikaans must have parity with English or supremacy over English.

POM. Should have parity.

KA. Parity or supremacy. What we want to work out – you see English is the fifth largest language in SA so it's not as if we were imposing it. Most of the Africans want to learn English but we have 30% - 40% illiteracy, which by the way is not in her priorities by the way, Ms Zille, she's taken it out of the line priorities. Her priorities are the fact that women particularly are totally demobilised because of illiteracy. It's not a matter for her to be taken very seriously. So the answer to this is that we have to work out arrangements, like on broadcasting, where other languages are given a fair crack. Let me tell you, Afrikaans – five out of twenty six universities teach through the language medium of Afrikaans. Now what kind of sensitivity is that to say that we now say it's possible to argue that one or two should teach in the medium of Afrikaans but there should be dual language instruction? Is that diminishing Afrikaans or is it trying to bring about some equity in the language area? Certainly for me, because I have a sense of history, in parliament I said why do people refer to Milner as kindergarten? (You know Milner who came as Governor of SA, Governor General after 1910.) I said they are troglodytes. I said it in parliament – as Treurnicht was a troglodyte in1976 when he tried to impose Afrikaans in Soweto and elsewhere. We don't come from that tradition. But what we do want is parity of esteem because we don't believe in this nonsense that freedom means black faces and white skins. We don't need to acquire the culture and assumptions of the previous ruling class. That's why I want to embark, and you maybe will help me, on this whole question of education for diversity.

POM. Let's say a kid in KwaZulu/Natal, he or she is educated in Zulu. They come out of that school, they go to Durban or they go to university, they are now conversant in Zulu but would they be conversant in another language too?

KA. Yes, mother tongue means the system which is something we have to grapple with. Up to now it means mother tongue and one other language.

POM. One other.

KA. Yes. And they basically start learning English at the age of 12 or 13.

POM. By the time a child finishes school – ?

KA. He's had five years of English.

POM. He's had five years to become conversant in English so it would be more like European schools in Germany or in Sweden.

KA. But the English is taught too badly, it's very fractured English. The Africans were the best. While you're here buy a book by Sylvester Stein called 'Who Killed Mr Drum?' There are most wonderful, beautiful written in English – all written by Africans. 'Who Killed Mr Drum', it's paperback published two weeks ago.

POM. What's the best bookstore around here.

KA. The best one is Long Street, Clarkes.  There will be essays there from Drum Magazine, beautiful English. Africans, Indians, coloureds can write English, it's the apartheid. Even the English speaking whites started rather stilted Afrikaans they write and therefore language, I'm doing a paper in January on language policy in schools. The officials don't have much imagination.

POM. How about taking two ends, and maybe I'm talking in terms of stereotypes, when one hears of African schools mostly where the students are undisciplined, don't go to school, sometimes they get 21 effective days of the year or whatever and their counterparts are teachers who are equally undisciplined, under-educated, have not adequate training. Now that it's post-1999 and the sunset clauses are officially set, are you faced with the problem that if you want to retrench or fire incompetent teachers in, say, a province that is made up largely of parts of a former homeland where you had serious problems that the teachers just aren't up to scratch, and you say, "You're going to be fired." Now you were so protective of democracy that you passed labour laws that make the firing of that teacher virtually impossible.

KA. Well we don't have a redundancy policy yet but you can't fire all the teachers who are incompetent or negligent because we don't have enough teachers to replace them with and so therefore, as you may have seen in the Mail & Guardian, you saw me inveighing against the provinces. What I am trying to do here is to screw the provinces by making three-monthly reports. Every three months I will make a report to the President on the performance of the provinces, which means largely the performance of the ANC programme, whether they have come up to scratch on examinations, delivery of school books. One of the things will be whether they are implementing a disciplinary code.

POM. Seven schools, you said, account for - ?

KA. All the matric passes at higher level.

POM. All matriculants.

KA. At higher level.

POM. That's high school?

KA. Right.

POM. You have about 12,000?

KA. Secondary schools about 12,000.

POM. When you go into townships, and I think a number of studies have shown, and again this may because they are American studies and therefore Eurocentric or whatever, but I know that when I grew up in Dublin I was more afraid of my mother than I was of my teacher because every night she stood over me and my homework and the homework was gone over and the homework was corrected and I was made to go back and do it again and do it again and do it again, and I got more wallops from doing my homework wrong at home than at school. One, how important is it to have parental involvement in the actual supervision of the child doing homework and whatever, and, two, are the socio-economic conditions - ?

KA. You can't do that in an abstract way Padraig. You can't do that as a kind of philosophical necessity because the migrant labour system has effectively destroyed any form of discipline because the father was away, the mother was working. We have a high degree of pre-marital child bearing, 15, 16. We have, one of the laws that was passed, was to set up school governing bodies. I think we're the most advanced in the world outside Scandinavia because they have real powers the governing bodies and they have authority. The majority must be parents, which I'm surprised the unions bought that plan, and it's a long haul. There are no short answers to this. It's a long haul, we try to do that now and for the first time we can say a minister has public opinion behind him to take on the unions, take on the student bodies. I'm going to go out on Friday, I'm called by the ANC alliance to justify what I've been doing for the last four months. Why don't I talk to the unions first before I make announcements? And I've got the President on my side to say that's my job, that's my audit, am I doing my job? It's a long haul and what we want is partnerships between white schools and black schools. We've got to de-racialise education in SA. They succeeded in two things, special geography of SA, very visible, ineluctable, an educational system.

. So the educational system is dysfunctional because of apartheid and the larger issue, for example, of parents being involved with their kids education can only take place if in fact the governing bodies really help to run the schools and the principal's authority is asserted. At present the unions won't allow principals authority to be asserted. They're changing now.

. … is a civic virtue of voluntary activity and voluntary work. That's of enormous importance. So when I go round I encourage parents and whites to say, "Look you've retired, you're 55, you have these enormous skills, you're a football coach." A school that is active is a school that's not going to be run by drug lords, by people of violence. Inactive schools are a haven for all the kind of anti-social behaviour so let's bring back the tradition of voluntary work. I can't break the stranglehold of illiteracy unless we get volunteers involved. The NGOs sometimes have a very negative role to play because they want to control everything and they don't like volunteers because NGO is an industry. So we must bring back the tradition of voluntary work, but the special geography is against us. Whites won't go to townships. One of the worst squatter camps in Johannesburg is Phola Park, there are elderly Jewish women who go and read the classics to the kids and inculcate an extraordinary spirit. They go once a week to Phola Park, and this might be interesting, last year they got 90% matric passes. The average is about 50%. They said, "We're not very happy with this, we want 100%."

POM. This is in Phola Park?

KA. Yes. Can I explain to you in an encapsulated way? I went to Alexandra Township which is one highway away from Sandton. There are three schools, four schools. One school's pass rate was 12%, another 14%, the other 20%. The fourth school, remember Alexandra Township is an old township, wham! We started there, winning hearts and minds, we started that in 1987. One school, now the fourth school has 50%. The year before that they had 30%. In one year 20% improvement. Now a lot turns there. They have the same facilities, or lack of facilities. A lot turns on the headmaster, the teacher and the kind of governing body. 12% to 50%. The 12% fell by 5%, from 17% to 12%, another went from 30% to 50%. Now this is a settled township, part of Johannesburg. How do you explain this extraordinary variation apart from saying the human element has a lot to do with it. So this is why I'm starting, and I'm going to fight the unions, on an assessment of schools. We will close down schools that don't work. But not like Helen Zille who makes the announcement. But we will do that at the end of a long process and the provinces are crucial to this because unlike Water Affairs I can't go to a school as Water Affairs I would do and say, "If you don't pay for water we will close down the project." I'll appeal to the women, isolate the men. I can't do that. You depend on the province for determination, the grit and the commitment. So I want to start the National Teacher's Award next year.

POM. Why, this is a constitutional question almost, in terms of education is there so much devolution of authority to the provinces?

KA. Education, Welfare, come on, you should know the reason for that. Education, welfare and housing, we provide the money, block grants. We can't interfere with that. This is a quasi-federal system that we have.

POM. Do you give a black grant as distinct from giving a block grant to the problems and say this is for education?

KA. A block grant for the province, not for education, for all the province expenditure.

POM. And they can allocate it as they wish?

KA. And they know what they do, pressure.

POM. They may say 10% on education and 90% on –

KA. Yes, but it's usually between 40% and 45% for education. When the cut-backs take place the cut-back from in-service training, so you say five years of change, they cut back on that, they cut back from adult education, they cut back away from literacy classes.

POM. But then there's not a national policy that says problems must – in order to ensure uniformity and equality that certain standards for teachers, for literacy, for this, for that and the other, must be – you can't cut expenditure on these things. They must reflect the demographics.

KA. We have to resolve it. When Nelson Mandela said a scandal, the school kids and their books, so there is a special allocation of R200 million last year. The pricks didn't spend R47 million. They didn't have the capacity so the kids were without books. They didn't have the capacity. So I spent R1,800,000 to say what went wrong. So even if you find the money they don't have the capacity to spend the money because they don't have the management and managerial systems and know-how.

POM. What's your hypothesis regarding the schools, like the schools in Alexandra, the ones that went up and the ones that went down? If you had to give a hypothesis as to –

KA. Money is not everything and money and resources. It depends a lot on the determination of the principal, the teachers and of course the governing body, creating a partnership. That's my answer.

POM. So this is a long term, this is not in five years we will have the education problem under control. We're talking about - maybe like in Ireland education didn't pay off up until really the seventies.

KA. Absolutely, with the reforms and within 25 years they are the most highly skilled, best educated kids in Europe.

POM. But it took that lag period for them.

KA. I'll use that. It's appalling, the church ran it you see in a pedagogic authoritarian way.

POM. You've been following the stories about John Charles have you?

KA. Terrible. What's John Charles?

POM. My God, you're missing the biggest story that's now making the rounds, is that in his diaries –

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.