Zimbabwe has overtaken Tunisia as the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa despite the numerous problems that continue to dog its once enviable education sector
According to the UNDP's latest statistical digest, the southern African country has a 92 per cent literacy rate, up from 85 per cent.
Tunisia remains at 87 per cent.
Post-independence Zimbabwe’s education was heavily subsidised by government, resulting in vast improvements from the colonial system.
Zimbabwean graduates remain marketable the world over.
In 2005 I was involved with some others in planting a new Orthodox Church in Tembisa, in Ekurhuleni. We met in a preprimary school, where most of the teachers were graduates -- refugees from Zimbabwe. And it soon became apparent that the Zimbabweans were way better educated than most South Africans. We looked for leaders, who could read the services, and it was the Zimbabweans who were competent and picked it up quickly.
The Zimbabweans had a head start on South Africans. They never had Bantu Education. They never had Christian National Edcuation, which was neither Christian, not national, nor education.
But there are some lessons in this for South Africa.
What did we do to try to counter Bantu Education?
We introduced Outcomes-Based Education.
In theory, that was not a bad idea. The principle of outcomes-based education is a good one -- you judge how well it is working by what pupils actually learn, and you remove the excuse of bad teachers: "We taught them that, but they didn't learn it".
It aims to replace rote learning with teaching pupils to think.
The problem is, however, that as a complete system it requires teachers who are equipped to run it, and teachers who had been trained in rote-learning under the Bantu Education system simply couldn't cope.
The best way to reverse the effects of Bantu Education would have been to engage in a massive retraining of teachers, a re-education programme, in fact. Instead, experienced teachers (pre-Bantu Education) were enouraged to take early retirement, and the number of teacher training institutions was reduced.
And who would do the teaching while the teachers were being re-trained?
Zimbabwean and other refugees, of course!
There are hundreds of them, probably working in menial jobs, their skills going to waste, and instead we deport them as illegal immigrants. That is what happened to some of the teachers at the pre-primary school in Tembisa.
Another observation I have made is that at our Catechetical School in Yeoville, johannesburg, we have had a number of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They got their education in French, and yet managed to cope with teaching in English far better than most South Africans. It's another country that has seen turmoil for the last 50 years or more, and yet still seems to manage to produce well-educated people.
OK, it's possible that the refugees are the smart ones, and the illiterate ones stayed at home. Dictatorial governments usually like to crack down on the intelligentsia, so they are often among the first to leave. But whatever the reason, the fact is that we have their skills in South Africa and we are not using them. If we did, we might soon surpass Zimbabwe in literacy.