There can be no doubt that poverty, which was the scourge of the 20th century, continues to confront us as the pre-eminent challenge of the new century. High mortality rates claim the lives of millions of women and children. This scourge is manifested in the form of diseases, malnutrition, stunted physical and intellectual development, all of which result in grim consequences. One overriding factor is to blame: poverty.
The discourses on globalisation, the new world order, international trade and multinational relations have been radically influenced by the sad events of 11 September 2001. Our desperate search for abiding solutions that will remove future threats to world peace have focused our attention on poverty, as a factor that fuels global instability through political and military extremism.
Following the long struggle to rid our nation of apartheid, South Africa is confronted with the huge challenge of alleviating the poverty that threatens the majority of our people with a looming crisis in human development. It is real, it is palpable, and it is evident on the streets of our inner cities, in the remote reaches of our rural areas and in the multitude of spaces that surround the islands inhabited by a minority of non-poor.
Our efforts at post-apartheid reconstruction coincided with a historical moment – in the last decade of the 20th century – when the influence of globalisation on the policy environments of nation states was both compelling and unavoidable. But I remain implacably convinced that the precise nature of this influence does not carry the kind of almost metaphysical inevitability that is often expressed in numerous articles on this subject.
There is a disturbing discourse on globalisation that has found prominence in some international and multilateral organisations, large sections of the media and public debate. It is invoked to justify a development path, with attendant policies, that is assumed to have an intrinsic inevitability. This development path is assumed to have an inexorable trajectory, impervious to human agency. This is of course a myth.
There is evidence that globalisation can generate very high returns, even within the poorest countries. But there is also evidence that, in the absence of widespread opportunities for basic education, the returns tend to accrue to a small, highly skilled stratum of society.
Change and progress in the last few decades, most significantly since the Second World War, have occurred at a bewildering pace. There has been tremendous progress in almost every endeavour of human existence. But this progress is shadowed by the dark side of human development – widespread poverty, social dislocation, vulnerability, premature and avoidable death and heartache for the majority of the world’s population.
Recent international events have made it dramatically clear that the burden and consequences of poverty are not confined within the boundaries of those countries most severely afflicted. Impoverishment and social discord make people vulnerable to forces that threaten peace and security. Just as national boundaries have become increasingly permeable to capital, products and highly skilled labour, we now know that these boundaries are also extremely permeable to the burden and consequences of poverty. It is therefore inevitable that the world now confront, with urgency, the challenge of global poverty and global equity.
The formulation of an effective response to all these facets of globalisation is certainly an extremely complex enterprise. But there can be no doubt that the improvement of education quality and access on a global scale is a necessary condition for success.
All South Africans, across political boundaries and including civil society, support the view that education is our most potent instrument for poverty alleviation and the promotion of human development. We have made rapid progress in establishing, in most areas of education and training, a strong basis of policy and law, rooted in our democratic Constitution. We have smashed the apartheid structures of Bantu, White, Coloured and Indian education, and replaced them with non-racial and non-sectarian departments and governing councils.
To take advantage of globalisation, we must be able to produce goods and services of high quality and at competitive prices. We must ensure that we create conditions through policy, law and a collective ethos that facilitate development. Education and training together form the vital weapon in our nation’s arsenal to achieve these things. Investment in all of a country’s people is no longer a luxury. Not only is education a basic human right, necessary for human dignity and good citizenship; it is also vital for achieving economic and social development.
South Africa has made important progress in the renewal and improvement of education. Much of this progress was made possible by the painstaking efforts to construct a constitutional democracy in this country.
The old institutions of government have been transformed and we have also gone a long way in building new institutions to give effect to our transformation agenda.
We have succeeded in reducing inter-provincial inequality in public spending by some 50% since 1994. The primary school enrolment rate is presently around 100%. Even among the poorest sections of our people, the average duration of schooling is already in excess of 12 years.
However, too many children are still forced to contend with education of poor or unsatisfactory quality. There can be no equity in educational achievement while the social distribution of quality remains uneven. Many children, the majority of whom come from the poorest of the poor, do not have access to effective teaching and learning, to a basic supply of textbooks and other materials to support learning.
Education is not just a fundamental right; there is irrefutable evidence that it creates the opportunity for sustainable livelihoods, raises agricultural and industrial productivity, provides the basis for sustained and equitable growth, improves health and nutrition levels, reduces family size and raises the level of community participation in local decision-making.
Mass public education of good quality has assumed a much greater significance in the context of rapidly globalising financial and product markets and the rapid growth in new technologies.
Education improvement and expansion is central to our strategy for social development, economic growth and peace in South Africa. I believe that education is similarly central to a strategy that can promote peace and development in our globalised world.
©OECD Observer No 231/232, May 2002