I come to bury Kader, not to praise him

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

De mortuis nil nisi bonum, “never speak ill of the dead”, said Chilon of Sparta in around the 6th Century BC.1 It’s a bit of a contradiction for those of us who inhabit the media world because common law holds that a dead person cannot be defamed. One can be as nasty as one likes about a person after they have shuffled off this mortal coil, hence the propensity of many of my fellow journalists to publish posthumous biographies containing scurrilous allegations which might be entirely devoid of truth but cannot be held to account.

I’m usually very much in the Spartan camp on this subject. Audi alterem partem, “hear the other side” is a basic requirement of journalism and, I believe, of human interaction. People have the right to defend themselves when attacked.

I’m breaking my own rule today for two reasons. Firstly, because a cacophony of good men and true have already spoken in praise of the deceased and I feel obliged to speak on behalf of those who have not been given a platform. Secondly, because everything I mention here today has already been conveyed by me to the gentlemen in question while he was still with us, and I gave him opportunity to respond.

Kader Asmal is dead. By the time you read these words, the ANC veteran’s official funeral followed by his cremation will have taken place; this after parties across the political spectrum paid tribute to the former water affairs and education minister. Among these was Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel who told parliament “We celebrate the life of a comrade and friend whose adult life was marked by the pursuit of knowledge, in a commitment to lifelong learning, supported by evidence and in order to persuade.”

Let us look then at the Diagnostic Report of the National Planning Commission headed by the same Minister Manuel which was released a fortnight before Asmal’s death. For those who have not had an opportunity to glance through it, I urge you to do so. It’s a document in the finest tradition of ANC political debate, identifying nine key areas where we are falling short as a nation. And one of those is the quality of our education. I quote:

“Efforts to raise the quality of education for poor children have largely failed. Apart from a small minority of black children who attend former white schools and a small minority of schools performing well in largely black areas, the quality of public education remains poor. Literacy and numeracy test scores are low by African and global standards, despite the fact that government spends about 6 percent of GDP on education and South Africa’s teachers are among the highest paid in the world (in purchasing power parity terms).”

What the report failed to add is that this state of our country’s education system was the direct result of steps taken by Kader Asmal as Minister of Education.

Asmal arbitrarily raised the minimum age for children to start school from 6 to 7 years; resulting in my daughter going into grade 1 a year later than I did as a child. The consequence is that matric pupils are now 18 years old, and legally independent. This means that parents cannot insist that they complete high school. Not surprisingly, 50 percent of those who dropout the schooling system do so post grade 11.

Asmal set about merging technikons with universities, failing to realise that there were good reasons why they were separate in the first place. The University of Durban-Westville, which under vice-chancellor Saths Cooper got its finances in order and did not raise fees, was merged with the University of Natal to create an unwieldy new monster called the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal with three campuses. The Rand Afrikaans University was merged with Technikon Witwatersrand into the University of Johannesburg resulting in 9 faculties spread over 5 campuses. None of these new institutions enjoy the credibility of their predecessors.

Asmal’s spearheaded the implementation of Outcomes Based Education. It took twelve years, coincidentally the time for my daughter to get to grade 12, for the ANC to finally realise that OBE was a disaster. I realised it long before. “Congratulations Kader,” I told him at our last meeting some five years ago. “You’ve succeeded where Verwoerd failed – you’ve turned black people into hewers of wood and drawers of water.” He huffed at me in his trademark style saying “Well, that’s your opinion”.

It remains my opinion. Go well, Kader. I thank you for writing the preamble to our constitution, but I cannot forgive you the creation of an unemployable lost generation.

  • 1. Chilon's original was Greek, τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (tòn tethnekóta mè kakologeîn, The Latin version dates to the Italian Renaissance, from the translation of Diogenes' Greek by humanist monk Ambrogio Traversari (Laertii Diogenis vitae et sententiae eorum qui in philosophia probati fuerunt, published 1433).