This is an archived article.

May 6, 2004

South African official seeks to fix his nation’s educational system

News and Information

The number one challenge in South Africa today is transforming an educational system that was designed, successfully, to provide a high-quality education for the 15 percent of the population to which all privileges flowed.

That system now is badly flawed, according to Khotso Mokhele, president of National Research Foundation of South Africa, the equivalent of our National Science Foundation. Mokhele, who was on campus last week as a Walker-Ames lecturer, noted that only

1 percent of South Africa’s children were about to pass the math and science proficiency examinations required for high school graduation.

So, the uphill path is steep. Mokhele believes that inspiration must play an important role in achieving the nation’s transformation. “I believe we need to import the Eastern belief that each child is born with the innate capacity to achieve, and that the failure to achieve is not so much the child’s failure as (that of) the school and the home,” he says.

Mokhele has been in the trenches, teaching high school in one of the tribal schools after the government tossed him out of the university.

“It was an impossible situation,” he recalls. “I was given three months to teach a year’s worth of material. I taught the hell out of those students. I had to make them believe that only they could determine the nature of the human beings that they would become, and they could prove the folly of those who tried to deny them the opportunity to succeed.”

South Africa has been reshaping its higher education system. Mokhele served on the task force that took 21 universities and 15 polytechnic institutions and merged them into 22 institutions. The problem now is to design and implement a modern curriculum that prepares students to work in the country’s technology sector in the country while also addressing the society’s pressing needs.

“Our physical infrastructure is solid,” he says. “But our instrumentation hasn’t been replenished. And we need to stress access to the system for all the young people in our country.”

Financing higher education in a society facing so many challenges is difficult, Mokhele acknowledges. “We can’t sound as if we’re in an ivory tower,” he says. “We have to be willing to help society address its most pressing issues. And we have to acknowledge that our biggest problem is preparing our students for higher education. We have to acknowledge that we’re trying to transform a system in which ideology informed all governance issues, an ideology (apartheid) that was pursued with determination, vigor and with resources, and was implemented successfully.”

South Africa is blessed with the most developed technology sector in all of Africa. “This country is not Guinea or Mozambique,” Mokhele says. “We have a sophisticated technology platform. One of our challenges is to determine how best to deploy that base to deal with problems created by the ideology that governed the country.”

Mokhele believes the inspirational power of basic research can be tapped to support the continued growth of the technology sector while also encouraging a generation of school-age children.

“We concur with those who argue that our society’s resources need to be employed to solve our most pressing problems,” he says. “AIDS is an epidemic here, and crime is rampant. But we’re also in the process of building the society of the future. Keeping alive such projects as the South African Large Telescope (the largest optical and infrared telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, scheduled for completion next year) helps us to create a vision for the future.”

Mokhele sees the South African technological infrastructure as offering inspiration for the society.

“It’s hard to build a constituency for science when our social safety net is so porous and there is among many a sense of hopelessness,” he says. “Frankly, I’ve been amazed at the public interest in astronomy, in paleoanthroplogy, in ecology and conservation. Our media have been enchanted by our projects. There’s been a great deal of interest on talk radio. The media are making it easy for us to tell our story, and we work hard at it.”

Mokhele believes that large, visionary science projects in areas such as astronomy and biotechnology can inspire the populace in general, and specifically a new generation of teachers and students. “Basic science can be an iconic institution, to help us create the society of the future,” he says. “I believe we can transform the relationship between science and society, creating a better-informed citizenry that supports this kind of investment.”

Mokhele is hoping to build from his recent UW visit and to strengthen ties between the UW and South Africa, matching the UW’s strengths with his country’s needs.