Former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel gave an interview with Clarence Ford on CapeTalk titled, “Our leaders are out of touch with the people”, which made key points on education. For context, South Africa has the worst public school system in the world, but the Bela Bill it is about to make it much worse.

Trevor Manuel flagged education as a key example of state failure over the weekend. This came shortly after the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill was passed by the ANC and EFF at committee level in Parliament. That means the Bela Bill now stands before the National Assembly for a vote to become the new law governing public schools attended by over 12.7 million children.

Nearly 80% of these students attend “no fee schools”, said Manuel, on the noble “intention” of spreading literacy, numeracy, and soft skills like showing up on time.

“The problem that has arisen,” Manuel continued, “is that creates a lordship for principals and teachers who don’t actually want parental oversight. So, school governing bodies have collapsed almost without exception in the no fee schools. It’s a problem.”

Manuel continued by noting that where “the involvement” of parents “is sought” and provided, the results are positive, but “for the majority, especially township and rural schools, there is no [parental] involvement. And you are seeing that in the results.”


What are the results? Before the pandemic South Africa had the worst literacy rates in grade 4 and 5 on record in this respected international study. Literacy has been on a decline since 2006, but few suspected that South Africa would beat its own negative record until it did in 2021-2022, with 81% of grade 4s now unable to read. In a 2019 international study on numeracy South Africa came third- last, having declined significantly since 2015.

For a sense of how bad things get, the latest Centre for Risk Analysis data show that at the bottom 20% of schools, measuring to include dropouts, only 4% of matriculants scored 40% or more for maths in one form or another.

The South African public school system is a form of child abuse. It is, if anything is, a crime against humanity to mentally stunt children at this scale. In addition, the UN estimates that 1.3 million children under the age of 5 have stunted growth from malnutrition, at a rate increasing faster than population growth since 2012.

The solution? Less structural “lordship” for officials and school administrators, and more parental involvement.

But how can that be done? Manuel was not advocating that parents should be made to pay out of pocket for their children’s schooling, so they get a sense of buy-in. Most earners make less than R4 300 per month. Beyond that are the 42% unemployed (on the expanded definition), who cannot pay anything.

Unsurprisingly, according to the Stats SA link above, graduates are four times less likely to be unemployed than those people who never matriculated from high school. A fully privatised school system would guarantee generational poverty-traps, which is why as taxpayers we must contribute to public education.


The position tabled by the IRR for years is to  empower all parents with some choice over their children’s schooling in that public spirit. Give parents a voucher of roughly R2 000 per month (accounting for inflation) to be redeemed at any school. This could be the whole payment, or it could be topped up out of pocket for those that can afford to spend more.

This is the amount already budgeted for children at public schools. There are already many low-cost private schools operating in that range that produce dramatically better results than publicly administered schools. So, the idea is practical.

To be sure, it is not bullet-proof, and there are case studies from the US that show how not to do edu-vouchers. Furthermore, some parents will make bad choices for their children. But this meta-study, analysing a wide range of statistical studies on edu-vouchers around the world, finds net positive effects.

The local argument is more extreme. Parents should not have to send their children to a school under the control of his, or her, “lordship”. If there was a decent administration in South Africa vouchers would be debatable. But we have maladministration at a scale that really does not exist in any other constitutional democracy in the world. So here, letting parents effectively have a choice on which school gets the job is not just practical, it is a moral imperative.

Most South Africans are far better decision-makers than power-grabbing elites in Pretoria and Cape Town make us out to be, a fact sometimes obscured by vicious intimidation. In KwaZulu-Natal I once spoke to a whistle-blower teacher who had been violently attacked for calling out corruption, and said that parents who “make trouble” by complaining all but guarantee that their children will “face the consequences. Not even next week, but the very next day their children will suffer at that school. It can be the principal himself, or one of his minions in the staff, or one of the students, but the cut will come”.

The “lordship” is held together by force and money, not parental guidance, and vouchers are the only credible instrument I know of that could seriously cut poor parents back into the equation.

So much for the candidate solution, what are the ANC and its communist youth wing pushing onto the 12.7 million?

Less parental involvement.

Hands of parents

The Basic Education spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, explained in an interview on the Monday 702 midday report that the primary purpose of the Bela Bill is to take the power of enrolment policy and language policy at public schools away from the hands of parents. Why?

Although it was not said, Manuel’s claim that parental governing bodies have already “collapsed” at almost all rural and township schools was effectively assumed, since the question that came was whether the Bela Bill is excluding parents just to remove Afrikaans at the few schools where it remains?

“No” he replied, saying that “all schools” should “accommodate all languages”.

The problem the Bela Bill is trying to solve, Mhlanga went on to explain, is that some schools (implicitly Afrikaans ones) are not full, because their language policy excludes locals, while others are overcrowded. So, by taking away power from parents, the government will redistribute children across existing infrastructure more efficiently, “to the benefit of all”.

This piece headlined “Education Problems: Are Afrikaans schools to blame?” took the rhetorical anti-Afrikaner rhetoric to school back in 2018 (not that it gets much attention). As Paul Colditz, former head of the Federation of South African Schools, noted at the time, there were 23 719 public schools and only 1 279 were single-medium Afrikaans, which is about 5%. Even if every single Afrikaans school was running at 50% capacity, prying them open by removing parental control would add 2.5% capacity to a school system that is failing dismally. This in a school system that has added 900 000 students over the last decade and subtracted over 3 000 schools nationally.

But the premise, that Afrikaans schools are running below capacity, is false. That is what I surmise from going around and asking. Last year I requested evidence from the Department of Basic Education, but their “lordships” didn’t even bother to respond. If they had the evidence, they would dish it.

The parliamentary legal document supporting the Bela Bill says, “Most of the schools use their admission, language policies and code of conduct to discriminate [against] certain sections of learners’. Classical example is the wearing of dreadlocks…[emphasis added].” “Most” is the only statistical term used in the document on language policy.


One reason the Department of Basic Education is so brazen in its fact-free power grab is that it knows how many have a bias against Afrikaans and moreover, it has the backing of elite pedagogy academics on its anti-voucher stance too.

For example, last year I debated Carolyn McKinney, author of “Language and Power in Post-Colonial Schooling”, professor of language education at UCT, and champion of the Bela Bill’s transfer of power from parents into the hands of the administrators of the world’s worst public school system. Why? Because of “apartheid”.

See the full debate here. Professor McKinney said the problem is that at “historically white schools in suburbs, the power that school governing bodies [which fall under some level of parental control] have to determine the language policy hasn’t really enabled the teaching of African languages in those historically white schools.”

McKinney added, “the school governing bodies need encouragement into introducing African languages, because it is 2022…if they haven’t shifted by now then there are not going to do it on their own without encouragement.”

The language professor’s decision to call the use of force “encouragement” is telling. Likewise, the decision to act as if Afrikaans is not an African language. Likewise, the pretence that Afrikaans schools do not offer other African languages on a second-language basis.

I put it to McKinney that if there is a school with 20 children per class and another that is overcrowded, the government should build a third school or offer a voucher programme so that private actors will have an incentive to do so. She laughed in response and said, “We cannot protect the 20 and expect that that is fair to the 50 across the road. We have to have a fairer system than that.”

“Fair” apparently means ‘cut out the parents and lower standards until there is an equality of outcomes.’

Knows better

Some say that when it comes to raising children “mother knows best”, or “parents know best”, but Professor McKinney thinks she knows better than they do. So does the Department of Basic Education, which again, is the same department that administered the worst literacy results on record before the pandemic, and then beat that by doing even worse, under the very same Minister, Angie Motshekga, who holds the record for being the longest-serving minister in cabinet, thanks to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

When Manuel said “our leaders are out of touch with the people” he meant that as a criticism, but the Bela Bill treats being “out of touch” with millions of parents as the explicit goal. Bela elites say that “the people” aren’t good enough to choose for their own children and so “encourages” them by force to let “our leaders” take away more control. The price will be paid for generations.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Gabriel Crouse is a Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). He holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.