On Tuesday 26 June, South Africans celebrated the anniversary of the adoption in 1955 of the Freedom Charter, a document that provides a compelling vision of the society to which we all aspire. It envisages a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, a South Africa in which the country’s wealth is shared among all its people.

As we intensify the struggle for the achievement of this goal, the struggle for radical economic transformation, we should look for guidance to one of the most celebrated statements of the Freedom Charter, that: “The doors of learning and culture shall be opened!”

This is because the most effective way to end poverty and reduce inequality is by providing young South Africans with education and training opportunities. It is broadly accepted that the purpose of education is, among other things, to develop the intellect of the nation, to serve social needs, and to contribute to the economy by developing skilled workers. Our country’s skills deficit is one of the biggest impediments to economic growth and development. It retards investment, sustains income equality and contributes to the high rate of youth unemployment.

As the country embarks on a new path of jobs, growth and transformation, we need to mobilise all South Africans in support of a skills revolution. This means we need to dramatically improve access to quality education for the poor, undertake a massive skills development effort and focus on disciplines that are needed in the economy now and into the future.

In the year that South Africa marks the 65th anniversary of the notorious Bantu Education Act, the ANC’s January 8th Statement says the country needs to sustain its significant investment in education to enable us to modernise our economy, improve the beneficiation of our natural resources and prepare our workforce for the fourth industrial revolution.

We need to build on the significant progress that has been made in education and skills development, especially in ensuring access for the poor. Around 77% of learners in public high schools now receive free basic education and there are currently almost a million students enrolled in higher education. There were only just over 500,000 students enrolled in higher education in 1994. Today Government provides free meals to nearly 12 million school children every day.

The decision to provide fee-free higher education to all students from poor and working class backgrounds, which is being implemented in a phased manner from this year, will make a significant dent in the skills deficit. It will ensure that young people from poor families can gain skills and have greater access in far greater numbers to opportunities that they had previously been denied. This will help to reduce poverty and inequality. It will give the economy an important boost as more graduates enter the workplace and the pool of qualified professionals expands.

This is taking place alongside a significant investment in TVET colleges, which need to develop the technical skills that are needed for the country’s major industrialisation drive. Work is underway to reposition TVET colleges as viable and attractive places of study for more school leavers. Partnerships between these colleges and the companies that need their skills will form an essential part of this effort. Such partnerships are needed to bridge the gap between the training provided and the skills that the economy needs. There is a need for companies, particularly the larger corporates and state owned enterprises to forge practical and effective partnerships, with TVET colleges in the development of vocational skills by ensuring that there is alignment between theoretical training with practical work experience.

The skills revolution requires that we take decisive measures to reduce inequality in the education system and significantly improving learning outcomes. Despite the creation of a single education system after 1994, there is still a great difference between the quality of education available to the poor and the wealthy.

We are working to address this through a massive investment in early childhood development to ensure that the children of the poor get the start that they need. Today, there are nearly a million children in early childhood development. We are also working to improve the leadership and management of schools, understanding that these are crucial determinants of educational success. As we work to improve the matric pass rate, we are also focusing on the ‘throughput rate’, which means ensuring that more learners who start in primary school stay in school and complete their schooling.

To achieve our educational objectives, we need to become a reading nation. From an early age, children should be taught to read and should grow up to love books and learning. This isn’t a task only of schools; it is a task that everyone in society should embrace. Government needs to work with civil society and community organisations on a national campaign to promote reading and literacy.

Only 15% of South Africans are said to read books regularly and yet countries like Russia have up to 85% of their population reading books regularly. We can improve on this.

The country needs to prepare for the reality that the fourth industrial revolution is going to displace a lot of people from traditional jobs. There is already much change in the world of work and more and more people need to be trained in different skills to enable them to be better prepared for other tasks. With the support of the SETAs, companies need to re-skill and retrain their employees.

We need to seize the opportunities of technology for reducing barriers to effective education for the poor. Used effectively, technology can reduce costs, overcome problems of distance and engage students in interactive learning beyond the classroom. These are among the reasons why we need to speed up processes towards making broadband affordable and universally available.

We have already done much to satisfy the demand of the Freedom Charter that: “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children.” We have also made important progress towards ensuring that “higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.

To achieve the skills revolution we require, we must build a social compact involving unions, government, the private sector and non-governmental organisations in promoting the development of skills at all levels, both in the formal sense and informally.

We should encourage lifelong learning, where all citizens make it their duty to develop their skills on an ongoing basis. Community colleges should be dedicated to equipping people with skills they can use to improve their lives.

A skills revolution means that every South African must have a desire to gain skills which they can use to become economically active either as an employee or as a self-employed person.

If we are to achieve the radical social and economic transformation envisaged in the Freedom Charter, then we cannot wait any longer for such a skills revolution, one that fundamentally changes the capabilities and the fortunes of the youth of South Africa.

Cyril Ramaphosa

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