Alfred M. Mthimkhulu
Great teachers never leave us. They’re here for good. Sadly, there are also growing jeers against formal education across what was once called the dark continent. Jobs are scarce. Has education failed us? Of course not. Educators must just assert and demonstrate its indispensability for thriving societies. Some twenty years ago I was doing my A-Level studies at Hamilton High School in Bulawayo. Our headmaster was Mr Dube.
One assembly day, adorned in his usual academic gown, Mr Dube had his typical well-researched message for the boys. He spoke of those years of the Voortrekkers, Africa’s newest tribe march inland. The weather was hostile and the land barren.
The drought, much like this we are enduring, scorched and strangled their faint hope. Knees to the ground, they cried out to their God troubled by why He had brought them to this dissolute place. Little did they know, said Mr Dube, that beneath the miserably dry land on which they stood were vast diamond fields unrivalled in the world.
One of the young man at the forefront of mining the diamonds and the gold further north became one of the wealthiest man of all time and a derivative of his name is in some of our birth certificates, Rhodesia. We changed that name in 1980 but he rests in our midst at Matopo Hills, the hills that captivated young Daniel Malan decades before he introduced apartheid. But that is history.
In 1980, my friends and I enrolled as the first bunch of Grade Ones in the free country. Our Government was clear: education was the key to our success as a country and as individuals.
Our parents hammered this message to us with unwavering conviction. In my village for instance several “uncles” and “aunties” went back to school. One auntie taught at our primary school for a few years but dropped out when a secondary school opened nearby to enrol as a Form One student.
Today, peers globally speak well of our work ethic. This feedback is the goodwill dividend of a robust primary and secondary education system my friends and I walked into as the first bunch of Grade Ones.
When Mr Dube was done with us, my friends and I went our separate ways. I enrolled at the new university Professor Makhurane and his team had set up. We held our classes at the United College of Education because we had no buildings of our own. There, I bumped into that auntie who had dropped out of teaching. She was training to be a teacher. She was as proud of me as I of her.
Universities, like the one I had just entered, seek to wean the high school graduate from reciting basic tenets of science to experimenting with them. In so doing, the student gains confidence and begins to build on the tenets, exploring how the tenets can help improve our routine tasks. She must obviously study how things are done and have been done elsewhere lest she wastes time reinventing the wheel.
I like escaping to other lands and to the distant pasts when ruminating on solutions to our problems. On the jeers against education, I find enlightenment in the evolution of modern universities in Europe. The like-minded came together to address social questions such as treating ailments, navigating the seas, exploring the stars and the universe. Centuries earlier, Socrates in Greece had deliberated with his peers and protégés on an ideal system of administering public affairs.
Such are universities, they are open platforms for methodical dissection of problems and not much else. It is thus not surprising that thousands of economists who probe the link between education and economic development find it to be insignificant.
This is why blaming education for our predicaments reminds me of that scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when Cassius pleads with Brutus to kill Caesar saying “Men at some time are masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
As underlings, Africa has looked at education as a perfect star, a god, a saviour instead of it as a vessel for discovering ways to improve how we live. The Voortrekkers had no clue of the wealth beneath them. Even if they knew as we know what lies beneath ours today, they lacked technologies to mine it.
Mining technologies in place, they still needed to cultivate a market for diamonds, secure speedy routes to the markets and ensure the gem retained value “forever”. They have done so through a system encompassing so much from engineering to politics including the Kimberly Certification Process.
This progression from active awareness of things in society, to the launch of technologies to harvest the things and strategies to protect them are economic development which delivers prosperity. Economic development is an indirect dividend of education.
A few days after defending my doctorate at Stellenbosch University (which some deem the citadel of Voortrekkers’ descendants), I had coffee with a German mentor. The Foundation he heads had generously funded my research. I thought he was more cheerful than I was of my accomplishment.
“You are a professor now” he said.
I realised then that indeed, being a professor is a great accomplishment in his part of the world than in mine. Over there, professors aren’t aloof bystanders mumbling big words and scribbling endless equations. They do that behind closed doors. In the open world, they are the go-to designers and propagators of tools for progress. If not working with farmers, they are farmers. If not working with industrialists, they are industrialists. They are dreamers bent on making us interplanetary beings.
They are also public servants led by a woman head-of-state with a doctorate in quantum chemistry. As long as educators in our midst play underlings to education than masters of it, the jeers across the continent will continue and darkness will keep hovering over us.
Alfred M. Mthimkhulu is a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Business, NUST. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mthimz