Education policy in Namibia and beyond- Why soft skills may be having hard impacts on African development

ACN young leaders interning at CAMFED
ACN young leaders interning at CAMFED

According to vision 2030, Namibia has about 15 years to become a knowledge based economy. But if the nation fails to get education policy right, the chances of realizing this vision remain slim to none, because more important than what we “know”, is how we use it. I argue that there are critical soft skills that were historically and are presently, missing from education curricula in Namibia and across the African continent. Redressing these deficits will ironically be found in exploring the extent of brokenness of failed systems and policies like Apartheid Bantu Education. While there can be no sweeping appraisal of “African” education policy, the trend across various nations reveals that to variant degrees, there is undertone of civilization and proselytization imbibed in the colonial education experience. It is this shared undertone that gives license to talk about the future of education policy in several African nations, in the context of one nation’s history.

In any assessment of education policy, there is, without a doubt, need to appraise the history of education, whatever it may be, in order to gauge progress. MIT history professor, Craig Wilder illuminates the importance of this appraisal in his book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Wilder argues that many of the oldest and most revered American universities were originally founded to make more subservient citizens, of Native Americans. Therefore, a deliberate move to repurpose tertiary education was and remains a necessary component of building the type of liberal arts institutions, which truly ‘decolonize minds’. The same is true for a nation that endured an education system that was not simply weak or inadequate, but particularly architected to keep young Africans servile and governable, to isolate them from international systems and to prevent them from entering professions in which they could significantly influence the political and economic status quo.

The Apartheid instituted Bantu Education system sought, perhaps more specifically than some other systems in Africa, to imbibe a culture of servitude and compliance. However, Namibia, highlights, in an acute manner, some of the most troubling education challenges across the African continent. Former Education Deputy Minister, a tenured teacher and lecturer, comments on the habits inculcated in Namibian education culture, in her reflections on teaching young Africans for over two decades. Dr Becky said “I would sometimes deliberately make the most blatant of mistakes in my teaching, to see if students would notice. Every once in a while, a quiet student would shuffle to my desk after the lecture to subtly suggest that something was amiss. The correction would always be made as a question, begging for an anticipated rebuttal. When it did not come and I responded with the words ‘you are right’, soon to follow was a surprised look and a feeling of marvel at the fact that ‘the TEACHER was wrong’”.  This account exemplifies much of the challenge of the formal education system in Namibia and across post-colonial Africa. Even in the 21st century the dynamics in several classrooms across the continent still closely mimic the hierarchy of colonial systems in which the teacher, like the colonizer, was always right. Any challenge of that assumption, no matter how brilliant or inspired, was seen as rebellion rather than innovation. Let’s face it, the average education system on the continent is at best, a stab in the dark to meet the needs of a future generation. Teachers are ultimately trying to prepare young people to solve problems that do not yet exist, using already outdated technology and techniques. More than content therefore, students need tools to problem solve, develop new content and revise, rather than, recite knowledge.

McKinsey’s, Africa at Work, report reveals that there is still a large skill gap and an evident mismatch in the professional space in Africa. In places like South Africa with about 600 000 unemployed university graduates, there are still an estimated 800 000 vacancies. An Africa wide survey of employers found that “many students receive poor quality education that does not prepare them for work. Employers cite key gaps such as lack of work experience, soft skills like time management and communication and basic business literacy and organizational skills.” These are the types of empowering skills that were, especially neglected from many colonial education systems.  Expecting to be the continent with the largest population of youth (approximate 1 billion under 18s) by 2050, the need to develop entrepreneurially minded, independent thinking young people could not be any more pressing. The challenge is no longer simply to achieve equal access to education. The challenge is now to improve the quality of education concerning its relevance to the job market, changing technologies and the broader needs for economic development.

Ahead of any nation that wishes to have a truly knowledge based economy of empowered citizens, are three challenges brought about largely because of the legacy of colonial education policies on the continent. Firstly, there must be, as Wilder suggests a recognition of the impact of historically broken education models on current education policy, followed by the deliberate repurposing of those models. This means that policymakers need to strive to repurpose education policy. They must focus on more than simply making education accessible to more young people and shift to making a variety of educational skills and practical opportunities also available. These skills must be derived in consultation with the private and social sectors that governments’ hope will absorb these young people, after schooling. The second damaging legacy to redress is indeed, classroom culture. This culture must shift from one of conformity to one of curiosity. The space for students to question and curate their own learning must gradually be provided through teacher training, curriculum supported entrepreneurial and innovative projects, as well as through the deliberate development soft skills like emotional intelligence, self-awareness, basic communication, critical thinking and general professional skills and etiquette. The third closely related challenge has to do with education exposure, or indeed the lack thereof. Simply put, young Africans need earlier exposure to the various sectors of the economy, which we hope they will impact. Africa Careers Network, as part of African Leadership Academy attempts to assist some of the most talented young Africans, (selected at an acceptance rate lower than that of Harvard University’s College), to find meaningful internships and jobs on the African continent. Yet the organization’s greatest challenge is explaining the value-add of an ‘internship’ or young hire to organizations on the continent. In general, young Africans, are neither trusted with, nor promoted for the types of roles that can give them the exposure and practice required in the professional field.

The three relics of the Bantu education system which are, a misalignment of education purpose and policy, inhibitive classroom culture and lack of exposure, make it more difficult for young Africans to be prepared to meaningfully contribute to their economies and transform the continent. Creating sustainable and systematic change in this regard, must involve private and social sector partnerships in skill building and innovation, the sharing of pan-African and international best practices and ultimately deliberate focus on using failed historic policy to determine, at the very least, “what not to do”. The challenge that awaits all who wish to take on the reform of African education policy, is a resolve to learn from the past. In what Einstein described as insanity, many African policymakers are expecting different results from an archaic education policy that has already failed in several ways. The challenge then, is not to simply reject and disregard these broken systems, but to unpack them and discover at their roots, the most toxic components that must deliberately be counteracted. The hope for the coming 15 years, is that African nations can discover from the ashes of history, a road map to innovative and transformative education. I believe that this road map is to be found, at least initially, by exploring the lessons and experiences, of amongst many other African nations, a frequently forgotten southern corner of the continent.

2 thoughts on “Education policy in Namibia and beyond- Why soft skills may be having hard impacts on African development

  • October 20, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    Hello Julie,

    Thank you for reading. You make some valid points about some of the challenges that lie ahead.

    The pressing development needs of our continent can hardly wait for older teachers to get on board. We have to come up with innovative ways to leapfrog some of these steps like we did with cellphone technology. That is not to say that our teachers become irrelevant but it is to suggest that there are ways to use technology, the corporate sector and even the ideas of students themselves to re-imagine the way young people learn.

    RE the willingness to work rural areas, there is much to be improved but what I can say is from the few young Africans I work with at African Leadership Academy, the desire to give back to rural communities is tremendous. With the right number of entrepreneurial thinkers from diverse backgrounds a multiplier effect may be able to have the impact we are seeking.

    In short we do have a capacity problem but I would venture to suggest that solving the quality problem may in itself address the capacity question. Starting with the latter will likely produce exactly what it always has.

    Happy to talk through this some more when next you are at OR Tambo.

  • October 17, 2015 at 7:18 AM

    Just sitting waiting for a flight at OR Tambo Airport when I caught this blog. Really thought provoking. Isn’t there a major problem with achiving teaching capacity to provide todays school children with such a wide range of skills including emotional intelligence? Many professional teachers were themselves schooled through Bantu Education. Surely the first consideration is how to recruit or train Educators with the skills required.

    A further issue is achieving a supply of well trained teachers prepared to work long term in rural areas around Southern Africa. How mainy successful Educators are prepared to relocate to a rural area poorly serviced in terms of housing, health facilities and indeed education opportunities for their own children?

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