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The Incredible Whiteness of Being (the DA)

cyrilSo, it’s election week. On Wednesday the 8th of May 2019, we will all go out and vote to decide who will govern South Africa for the next five years. It is no secret that the Zuma-led ANC has crippled the country and yet it is almost certain that the ANC will win the election this year and that their proportion of the national vote will increase from 2014. Even conservative publications like the Economist describe Cyril Ramaphosa as “South Africa’s best bet.” To quote them further “The Economist endorsed the DA in 2014. But this time, with deep reservations, we would cast our national vote, at the national level, for the ANC. Our reasons are painfully pragmatic. The DA has the right ideas for fixing South Africa, but it is in no position to implement them. It is still seen as the party of those who are white, indian or coloured.” I wonder why that is?

Since the transition the DA has always been the largest opposition party and the most credible threat to the ANC, yet they will have to get significantly more than 22% of the vote (compared to the ANC’s 62%) to do so. Given that Black South Africans make up 79% of the total population, winning a national election is only possible by convincing large numbers of Black voters to vote for the DA. Most South Africans still think race is a really important feature of South African society, something that’s understandable given that that’s what the apartheid government used to differentially legislate, allocate, reward and punish for half a century. I was curious about the racial breakdown of the DA in parliament (“do as I do, not as I say”). So I went to look at the People’s Parliament website and it turns out that the current DA parliamentarians are 62% White and 67% Male.  The infographic below is telling.

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Thinking that perhaps this was a legacy issue and that the DA has subsequently changed, I looked at the National Parliamentary List that the DA have just put forward for the 2019 elections. It turns out that if the DA wins the same number of seats in the 2019 election as it did in the 2014 election (87 seats) then it will be ‘only’ 59% White, hardly an improvement.

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Comparing the above graph to the one below, you have to ask yourself who is advising the DA? How are they still employed?

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What kind of logic do you have to use to conclude that in a hyper-racialised country like South Africa it’s OK to have 59% of your representatives come from 9% of the population? And specifically the group that systematically oppressed and benefited from apartheid. And somehow this is a winning strategy? Of course the DA response is usually “But we pick the best candidates for the job, irrespective of race.” How is this going to go down well with Black South Africans? If anything it is extremely offensive. The implication is that there are no competent Black people within the DA to lead it. It may well be the case that there are not enough Black leaders in the DA but the first place to start looking for answers is in the party itself. How have strategic party officials and big funders of the DA not set out ultimatums around transformation – change or we’re out. How many times does one have to say this: you will never win a national election unless you can convince Black South Africans that your policies and their implementation will benefit them, in particular those who are poor, unhoused and unemployed. I personally don’t think the DA will ever be able to make that case when two thirds of their leadership is White.

It is not the DA alone that pays the price of its short-sightedness. South Africa as a whole is the one that suffers when we have such a weak and shambolic opposition. In three days time thousands of voters are likely to hold-their-nose-and-vote-Ramaphosa knowing full well that one votes for a party and not an individual, fully cognisant that their vote will contribute to large numbers of murderous, corrupt and inept ANC politicians making it into parliament as a result. Yet they will do it anyway. Not because they do not know that the DA exists, or what their policies are, or even their track record in the municipalities they govern. It is simply that they do not trust the DA. Some do not trust that they will be able to lead us out of the political quagmire that we are in, seeing Ramaphosa and his appointees as the only way out. Others do not trust that the party really has their interests at heart. And who can blame them, when a party’s leaders are 62% White and 67% male. Shame on you DA.

Get with the program or be content to keep 20-something percent of the vote forever.

“In Praise of Unsexy Policies” (my BD article on the ECDOE rollout of graded reader anthologies)

The article below first appeared in the Business Day on the 29th of April under the title “Eastern Cape pioneers book printing and distribution scheme to pupils“)


In South Africa it is rare to find even-minded critics that praise our government. I suspect there is a latent fear that compliments will lead to complacency and laurels to laziness. Perhaps it’s simply that we are disappointed in almost everything; high aspirations repeatedly confronting harsh realities. Earlier in 2019 the President proclaimed that we will “position South Africa as a global competitive player within the digital revolution space.” Yet 48% of primary schools don’t have internet, 26% have no running water and 12% have no electricity (SMS 2017). Fourth Industrial Revolution here we come!

Yet sometimes government does get it right and we should give credit where credit is due. In 2019 an unlikely province pioneered the production and distribution of books to every Grade 1-3 child in the province; the Eastern Cape. The books were anthologies of levelled readers – crucial reading resources normally only available to middle-class children. By quietly inventing a new way to produce, print and distribute high-quality Open Access books, three bureaucrats changed the reality of schooling for 463,276 children in 2019. I’d like to briefly tell this story; the collaboration of civil society (Molteno), private funding (Zenex Foundation and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment) and government (Eastern Cape Department of Education) to innovate for the improvement of education.

Our story starts in Gauteng in 2012 when the MEC Barbara Creecy announced that she was going to focus on primary school literacy and numeracy using coaches, lesson plans and graded readers (a formula that has emerged as the education ‘triple cocktail’) (GPLMS). At the time there were no levelled readers in African languages (i.e. stories that increase in difficulty incrementally, story by story), despite the fact that 70%+ of South African children learn to read in an African language in Grades 1-3. To fill the gap the Zenex Foundation commissioned a well-known South African NGO (Molteno) to develop graded readers in all African languages in a series called ‘Vula Bula’. These were short stories (‘skinny books’) levelled from Story 1 to Story 66 in each language. (Middle-class parents may be familiar with “Biff, Chip and Kipper” – the characters in the Oxford Reading Tree series). The Vula Bula skinny books were printed and distributed to half of all primary schools in Gauteng.

After the release of the PIRLS 2016 results in 2017 showing that three quarters of South African Grade 4 children (78%) could not read for meaning, the Eastern Cape Department of Education took a strategic resolution to focus on Literacy in Grades 1-3. Three of the top bureaucrats in the department – Themba Kojana, Ray Tywakadi and Penny Vinjevold – drew up a reading strategy to provide access to levelled readers to all Grade 1-3 children in the province.

To cut a long story short, they decided to print the 66 skinny books in three anthologies (one per grade with 22 stories per anthology). The genius here is that the main cost of printing readers is the cover of the ‘skinny books’ and the licensing fees paid to publishers.  By eliminating licensing fees (using Open Access readers), combining stories into one book with one cover, and printing in large print runs of more than 100,000 per anthology they reduced the cost per anthology to R8-per-anthology. To give a price comparison, 20 Oxford Reading Tree readers cost more than R400. Lastly they delivered the Vula Bula anthologies using a proven distribution mechanism – in the plastic wrapping together with the DBE workbooks.

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In 2018 the ECDOE printed and distributed 824,365 anthologies to 463,276 Grade 1-3 learners in 4,365 primary schools. To give you a sense of the scale, if you stacked all those anthologies on top of each other it would be the same height as 26 Table Mountains! The total cost of printing them was a prudent R7-million, paid for by the Eastern Cape Department of Education. By my calculations Minister Motshekga could implement this nationally for all Grade 1-3 children for R24-million per year. I personally cannot think of a better use of taxpayer money than providing every child with the basic resources they need to get on the first rung of the reading ladder.

Obviously teaching reading is about more than just providing the right books, but it’s a good start. You certainly can’t teach reading without them! The ECDOE is also eliminating extreme class sizes in the Foundation Phase and has offered bursaries to all of its Foundation Phase subject advisers to enrol in a new qualification at Rhodes on how to teach reading for meaning. On behalf of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment I’ve been involved with the Rhodes course and advising the ECDOE at strategic points in this journey, but the credit here goes to government and these three bureaucrats who have been quietly innovating in the background. They are ultimately the ones who are responsible for implementing these programmes on the ground.

Policies like these are the bread and butter of educational improvement. Providing books and teaching teachers how to teach reading isn’t sexy, but neither is plumbing. Both are necessary for improvement – even in the ‘digital revolution space.’

New edited book finally printed “Improving Early Literacy Outcomes” (IBE/Bril)

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I’m currently at the CIES conference in San Francisco where we launched a book that I co-edited with John Comings. The title of the book is “Improving Early Literacy Outcomes: Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment” and it focuses on early literacy in developing countries. My intro chapter (“Learning to Read and Write for Meaning and Pleasure“) provides an overview of the book and includes a few excerpts from chapter 4 (Pretorius, 2019) and chapter 11 (Menon et al, 2019). The book is available for purchase online here. The full list of chapters is included below:

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Links I liked…& more job ads

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  • Extremely helpful list of research and travel funding for African academics.
  • Great website for teaching statistics – Seeing Theory – an interactive ‘textbook’


  • JPAL and Pratham are looking for a Managing Director of “Teaching at the Right Level” Teaching at the Right Level Africa is a new high-profile initiative jointly led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and the Indian Education NGO Pratham. We currently seek a dynamic Managing Director (Nairobi/JHB) to drive a scale up of the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) learning approach to more than 3 million primary school children in Africa over the next five years. Core to this role is helping to build a collaborative, unified TaRL Africa team that works across multiple countries and partners to achieve our goal of supporting education systems throughout the continent.  Read more and apply here.
  • The DBE are looking for a Director of “Educator Performance Management and Whole School Evaluation” (Pretoria)
  • We have extended the deadline for the COO position at Funda Wande (Cape Town) to the 12th of April 2019 – if you know of anyone or think you fit the profile please apply!

We’re recruiting a COO! (+ DBE jobs + RESEP bursaries)

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For the last two years we have been working on the Funda Wande: Reading for Meaning program (video here). Our aim is to equip Foundation Phase teachers (Grades R-3) to teach all children to read for meaning in their home language and in English. We’ve realised that this involves a lot of different components, from collaboration with government, the development of lesson plans and materials,  in-classroom coaching, and working with Rhodes to develop a formal qualification, the Advanced Certificate in Teaching Foundation Phase: Literacy. The team has expanded quickly over the last two years and there are now 28 people working on various elements on the project. We have now also expanded into mathematics (Bala Wande: Calculating with Confidence) and have a pilot in ECD.

We are now looking for a COO for the project to help manage all the different work streams. If you know of anyone who fits the description above please forward this on to them and encourage them to apply (Deadline: end of March 2019, PDF of job advert here). They will be working with a really great team of fast-moving, competent, dedicated and hard-working professionals. All kids deserve a decent shot at life by learning to read for meaning and pleasure and learning to calculate with confidence and understanding.  Join the team 🙂


Other important jobs: The Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Foundation for Professional Development (FPD) are recruiting a Research Manager and a Research Assistant for their Early Grade Reading Study scale-up in the North West (Deadlines: 13 March 2019). I am always reluctant to circulate job adverts that don’t have a salary range (these ones don’t) but this is really important work and you will be working with a very cool team of researchers in the DBE. I can strongly recommend this!

Important bursaries: RESEP at Stellenbosch is currently offering bursaries to Masters students at any SA university for students looking at the Economics of Education, Basic Education and ECD. Value: R50,000 p.a. Deadline: 5 April 2019.

Links I liked…


Over the last while I’ve been swamped working on the Funda Wande: Reading for Meaning program (more on that soon) and haven’t managed to keep up with the ‘Links I liked‘ blog posts. I think these are a helpful way of keeping track of good articles/books/blogs/videos etc. and curating some of cool stuff on the internet so I want to get back into this. Most of my time these days is spent looking at early grade reading in African languages so most of the articles are linked to that…

Useful new research:

I think I already posted the links below but it can’t hurt to do it again:

If you’ve read any great articles in the last while feel free to post them in the comments!

Hijacked by the urgent we neglect the important (SA Budget 2019)


(This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on the 21st of February 2019 under the title “Tablets won’t cure pupil problems“) 

Reading through the Treasury’s meticulous budget documents the contrast between the State of the Nation (SONA) and the Budget becomes starkly apparent. SONA is the aspirational shopping list the President gives the Finance Minister. The Budget is what is actually in the trolley when he walks out the shop. The President can announce whatever he likes but until it manifests in the Budget then it remains in the collective dreamscape of the ANC.

So, it should come as no surprise then that this budget wasn’t a SONA-Budget, it was an Eskom-budget. In a context of low growth and imminent catastrophe there is only so much that can be done. And if you can’t keep the lights on then nothing else matters anyway. Given that others will deal with Eskom, and the big push in infrastructure spending I will focus exclusively on Basic Education.

In short this was a business-as-usual education budget. Most of the sensational elements of the President’s SONA as far as education is concerned were conveniently left out of the budget. There was no mention of one-tablet-per-child and nothing about “two years of compulsory early childhood development (ECD)”. What a relief! There is no evidence that either of these would be a good use of limited funds. One tablet per child policies are universally regarded as being foolish, and have failed in every country they have been implemented, rich or poor. Existing evaluations of our current Grade R year indicate that children don’t actually benefit that much from it because the quality is so low. The received wisdom in the sector is to make Grade R worthwhile before adding on another low-quality questionable-value year of ECD.

To their credit, Treasury has prioritized the eradication of pit latrines in 2,400 schools by allocating an additional R2,8billion over the next three years. Interestingly, these funds won’t be given to provinces to spend – perhaps because the more dysfunctional provinces failed to spend their school infrastructure funds in the past – and instead will be managed nationally by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and spent “on their behalf” (p.69). Perhaps this is a sign of the political times with a strong-handed national approach rather than the traditional federalist provincial implementation of policies.

While the least feasible (and most expensive) proposals from SONA were ignored, so were the most important and highest impact ones: focusing on fixing early grade reading. In the SONA the President explained that early grade reading “is possibly the single most important factor in overcoming poverty, unemployment and inequality” Well, not according to the Finance Minister because no money was allocated to it. There was no mention of reading at all except for some lip-service about an Early Grade Reading Assessment which is actually a pre-existing initiative and receives less than R10-million per year. This is a shame and represents yet another year that we kick the education can down the road. The problem with a business-as-usual budget is when business-as-usual isn’t working in education. The two most reliable international assessments South Africa takes part in either show a slow-down in progress (in Grade 9 mathematics between 2011-2015) or no improvement at all (in Grade 4 reading between 2011 and 2016) (see here). There are a number of reasons to speculate why results are stagnating. Due to a 13% surge in births in 2003-2005 (most probably due to ARVs) without a concomitant rise in education spending, we are seeing increases in the number of learners per class, rising from 40 to 45 learners per class in primary schools and 41-48 learners in no-fee schools (according to Pirls 2016). What we needed from this budget was a recognition that the long-term struggles of the country (unemployment, inequality, low growth) cannot be addressed when 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. And that while reforming basic education is a long-term solution, long-term solutions have to start somewhere.

I have a lot of sympathy for Treasury officials who work tirelessly to make sure that the country is economically on track and deftly navigate the trade-offs, prioritization and budget constraints that are the real politics of any democracy. There is no doubt that neutralizing the Eskom threat was the number one challenge we needed to overcome in this budget. Yet there will always be a new urgent challenge that grabs our attention and is considered political dynamite – #FeesMustFall in 2017/18 Eskom in 2019/2020 – surely there will be others. Hats off to Minister Mboweni and his Treasury officials for steering us through the current crisis. Let’s hope his successor can move from dealing with crisis  upon crisis and instead start laying the foundations for long term progress.