A Western Cape high school principal’s open letter to South African President Jacob Zuma has gone viral. The letter, penned by Bergvliet High School headmaster Stephen Price, addresses education in South Africa and references a well-known letter written by local celebrity Gareth Cliff a couple of years ago. Both letters are published below…
Dear President Zuma,
It’s two years to the day when Gareth Cliff, a local media celebrity, wrote an open letter to you. It caused quite a stir at the time. And as I was thinking about what I was going to say to the Class of 2012 of my school, his letter came to mind. As I re-read it I realised it was about time for another one. Not quite as controversial perhaps but nevertheless another open letter borne out of my desire to see the 200 matrics that we’re about to send you fulfil their dreams in a positive, dynamic South Africa.
My name is Stephen Price. I am the Principal of Bergvliet High School here in the Western Cape. Some would describe this school as a ‘former Model C school’… a description generally used to justify why other schools are underperforming. But that is another discussion.
You see, right now I am addressing close on 1000 teachers, parents and pupils at the Valedictory Service of the Class of 2012 of my school. It is a special occasion, full of excitement and expectation, of joy and sadness, of hope and trepidation, and it will be a day for them to remember. Their last official day of school. I’d like to tell you a little bit about them. But, before I do, consider this.
For the past 12 years or so every single person in this hall has been working towards this one goal. Their educators, their families and themselves. And in the past 5 years it has been our mission at Bergvliet High to develop in these young people a revival of respect, a unity of purpose, a spirit of participation and, more importantly, a sense of hope. Values we believe that will stand them in good stead in the ‘big wide world’ out there. Values that we should be seeing in the leaders of our country.
In Gareth’s letter he outlined various suggestions that he believed you needed to pay urgent attention to. Sadly you, and our Government, have not responded with anything resembling leadership and we have lurched from one crisis to another over the past 24 months. I believe that many of Gareth’s suggestions are still valid, notwithstanding the crudity of his delivery at times. But I share his deep sense of frustration because, like him, I believe in the future of this country and our youth.
What follows is what my staff and I have taught our 200 matrics at Bergvliet High and I would venture you and our Government could do with a few lessons in this regard. Let me tell you what we have done.
A Revival of Respect – we have taught these youngsters about our shared heritage, about our country, about each other, about the value of treating others with respect, about being proud of who they are and about loyalty and integrity. But this is what we were up against from you and our Government, our elected leaders – continuing rampant corruption, fraud, self-enrichment, misuse of public funds, the appointment of family and supporters regardless of ability, the manipulation of the justice system by convicted criminals – Shaik, Selebi come to mind – and finally the massacre at Marikana. You let us down at every turn. You did not care. You lacked leadership. But most importantly you have undermined everything we tried to teach our young charges. Our Government has not, under your leadership, developed a revival of respect. Well, we are sending you 200 young South Africans who know what respect is, who know the value of others, who are proud of where they come from, who are proud of this country and who are loyal, passionate and honest. My request to you is that you show them the respect they deserve. They might be young but they are citizens of this country and they will be our leaders one day. Take them but don’t mess them around. Provide them with opportunity – they will create the jobs you need – we taught them how. Respect them, sir. I do.
A Unity of Purpose – my staff have taught our matrics to work together, to understand that each of them has a different and unique role to play in achieving the common goal, that without a vision people will perish, that if we all pull in different directions we will never achieve anything and that our strength is in the whole, not the individual. Again you and our Government have let us down. We have watched in dismay as the unions, the factions within the Government, the personal agendas of our elected leaders and influential individuals have dragged the people of this country further apart, ever deeper into a pit of despair and ever backward and away from the vision that we all bought into in 1994. Why did you do that? Is the Alliance more important than the future of our matrics? Is Mr Malema so important that he can do and say what he wants and, by doing so, undermine any unity of purpose? Is it all ‘just politics’? Is the culture of entitlement that prevails amongst our people and fostered by union, alliance and populist leaders worth more than the value of hard work? Again we are sending you 200 young South Africans who know the value of hard work, of having a vision and working towards it and who understand that in order to achieve the vision they have to work side by side, shoulder to shoulder with each other. We are giving you 200 young South African eager to be a part of the solution. Please use every single one of them. I personally recommend them. They won’t let you down. They will work hard. I know.
A Spirit of Participation – my staff have worked above and beyond the call of duty to provide every opportunity for our children. Clubs, societies, community service, sport, art, music, drama, endurance, debating, quizzes, National Olympiads, culture, recycling, continuing education, incoming and outgoing tours, exposure to exchange students from Germany, USA, Reunion, Canada, Australia, China and the UK, refugees from French-speaking Africa and a myriad of extracurricular courses on project management, philosophy, engineering, design, music and art, to name but a few. Every one of our students has had equal opportunity to be part of a vibrant 21st century South African school and the benefits have been incredible. Sportsmanship, empathy, understanding, comradeship, connection, health and wellness, competition, talent, strength, intellectual growth, stamina, love of learning, service to others, understanding the needs of others over self, leadership, courage, passion…. I could go on and on.
But what example do you set? Instead of building up, you break down. Lack of school sport structures, bureaucratic interference in performing schools, constant changes to curriculum, lack of text books, lack of community infrastructure and your lip service to policy that outlines wonderful aims and objectives. We couldn’t wait for you to deliver. So we did it ourselves. Our parents got involved, paid their school fees, supported our teachers, gave them benefits that you should have provided and this allowed my staff to give more and more. Do I hear the hadedas shouting ‘former Model C school’ at this point? Probably…. but that’s your fault, I’m afraid. You’ve not done enough to raise the level of involvement in education. We witness the collapse of the Eastern Cape Education department, Limpopo, and instead of solutions we have officials avoiding accountability, scurrying for cover and making excuses.
But here’s a thought. We have just produced 200 hundred young South Africans who are not afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting involved. We’ve taught then the value of participation. Put them into work programmes – Helen might be able to help you in this regard, into learnerships – we have 6 trainee teachers permanently stationed at our school, into sport and teaching, into apprenticeships, into corporate South Africa, and I can guarantee you things will start to happen. But don’t delay as many of them are looking to opportunities across the ocean and we need them here, you need them here. Tell them you want them to stay. I would.
And finally, Mr President – I’ve always wanted to say that – A Sense of Hope. Hope – not in the sense of wishful thinking, not simply in the sense of a positive attitude, of being optimistic without reason, but rather hope in the sense of confident expectation based on a solid foundation. That’s what we’ve given our children at Bergvliet High. We’ve given them something to strive for, to look forward to, a vision, a better life for all…. sound familiar? Why then does my DUX scholar, scoring over 90% in all her subjects, not get accepted into UCT or Stellenbosch for medicine? Why are her hopes being dashed? They should be knocking down the door to enrol her. Not your fault, I hear you say…. nothing to do with you. I’m sorry sir but it has everything to do with you.
Gareth Cliff said “India and China are churning out new, brilliant, qualified people at a rate that makes us look like losers. South Africa has a proud history of innovation, pioneering and genius. This is the only way we can advance our society and economy beyond merely coping.” She IS one of these people that Gareth is describing….. and, believe it or not, we have 199 more like her. We are giving them all to you. Give them HOPE… because my staff have nurtured, grown and developed this hope in our youngsters. Do everything in your power to make it happen. They are ready and waiting and keen as mustard. Stop focusing on Mangaung. We have 200 matrics that deserve your attention. And they deserve it now….not after Mangaung.
Thank you for reading this (I hope you do) and I quote Gareth again to end off:
“We know who we are now, we care about our future – and so should you.”
This article was first published in The Argus
Here is a copy of local personality Gareth Cliff’s Open Letter to the South African Government:
12th October, 2010
OK, I get it, the President isn’t the only one in charge. The ANC believes in “collective responsibility” (So that nobody has to get blamed when things get screwed up), so I address this to everyone in government – the whole lot of you – good, bad and ugly (That’s you, Blade).
We were all so pleased with your renewed promises to deliver services (we’ll forgive the fact that in some places people are worse off than in 1994); to root out corruption (so far your record is worse than under Mbeki, Mandela or the Apartheid regime – what with family members becoming overnight millionaires); and build infrastructure (State tenders going disgustingly awry and pretty stadia standing empty notwithstanding) – and with the good job you did when FIFA were telling you what to do for a few months this year. Give yourselves half a pat on the back. Since President Sepp went off with his billions I’m afraid we have less to be proud of – Public Servants Strikes, more Presidential bastard children, increasing unemployment and a lack of leadership that allowed the Unions to make the elected government it’s bitch. You should be more than a little worried – but you’re not. Hence my letter. Here are some things that might have passed you by:
1. You have to stop corruption. Don’t stop it because rich people moan about it and because it makes poor people feel that you are self-enriching parasites of state resources, but because it is a disease that will kill us all. It’s simple – there is only so much money left to be plundered. When that money runs out, the plunderers will raise taxes, chase and drain all the remaining cash out of the country and be left with nothing but the rotting remains of what could have been the greatest success story of post-colonial Africa. It’s called corruption because it decomposes the fabric of society. When someone is found guilty of corruption, don’t go near them – it’s catchy. Making yourself rich at the country’s expense is what colonialists do.
2. Stop complaining about the media. You’re only complaining about them because they show you up for how little you really do or care. If you were trying really hard, and you didn’t drive the most expensive car in the land, or have a nephew who suddenly went from modesty to ostentatious opulence, we’d have only positive things to report. Think of Jay Naidoo, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Zwelinzima Vavi – they come under a lot of fire, but it’s never embarrassing – always about their ideas, their positions, and is perfectly acceptable criticism for people in power to put up with. When the media go after Blade Nzimande, Siphiwe Nyanda and the President, they say we need a new piece of legislation to “make the media responsible”. That’s because they’re being humiliated by the facts we uncover about them daily, not because there is an agenda in some newsroom. If there had been a free press during the reigns of Henry VIII, Idi Amin or Hitler, their regimes might just have been kept a little less destructive, and certainly would have been less brazen and unchecked.
3. Education is a disaster. We’re the least literate and numerate country in Africa. Zimbabwe produces better school results and turns out smarter kids than we do. Our youth aren’t usemployed, they’re unemployable. Outcomes-based-education, Teachers’ Unions and an attitude of mediocrity that discourages excellence have reduced us to a laughing stock. Our learners can’t spell, read, add or subtract. What are all these people going to do? Become President? There’s only one job like that. We need clever people, not average or stupid ones. the failure of the Education Department happened under your watch. Someone who writes Matric now hadn’t even started school under the Apartheid regime, so you cannot blame anyone but yourselves for this colossal cock-up. Fix it before three-quarters of our matrics end up begging on Oxford Road. Reward schools and teachers who deliver great pass rates and clever students into the system. Fire the teachers who march and neglect their classrooms.
4. Give up on BEE. It isn’t working. Free shares for new black partnerships in old white companies has made everyone poorer except for Tokyo Sexwale. Giving people control of existing business won’t make more jobs either. In fact, big companies aren’t growing, they’re reducing staff and costs. The key is entrepreneurship. People with initiative, creative ideas and small companies must be given tax breaks and assistance. Young black professionals must be encouraged to start their own businesses rather than join a big corporation’s board as their token black shareholder or director. Government must also stop thinking that state employment is a way to decrease unemployment – it isn’t – it’s a tax burden. India and China are churning out new, brilliant, qualified people at a rate that makes us look like losers. South Africa has a proud history of innovation, pioneering and genius. This is the only way we can advance our society and economy beyond merely coping.
5. Stop squabbling over power. Offices are not there for you to occupy (or be deployed to) and aggrandize yourself. Offices in government are there to provide a service. If you think outrageous salaries, big German cars, first-class travel and state housing are the reasons to aspire to leadership, you’re in the wrong business – you should be working for a dysfunctional, tumbledown parastatal (or Glenn Agliotti). We don’t care who the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces is if we don’t have running water, electricity, schools and clean streets. You work for us. Do your job, don’t imagine you ARE your job.
6. Stop renaming things. Build new things to name. If I live in a street down which the sewage runs, I don’t care if it’s called Hans Strijdom or Malibongwe. Calling it something nice and new won’t make it smell nice and new. Re-branding is something Cell C do with Trevor Noah, not something you can whitewash your lack of delivery with.
7. Don’t think you’ll be in power forever. People aren’t as stupid as you think we are. We know you sit around laughing about how much you get away with. We’ll take you down, either at the polls – or if it comes down to the wire – by revolution (Yes, Julius, the real kind, not the one you imagine happened in 2008). Careless, wasteful and wanton government is a thing of the past. The days of thin propaganda and idealized struggle are over. The people put you in power – they will take you out of it. Africa is tired of tin-pot dictators, one-party states and banana republics. We know who we are now, we care about our future – and so should you.