University of the Free State Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Jansen was in Cape Town on Tuesday to deliver the fifth Imam Haron Lecture, held annually to commemorate the memory of the Muslim activist, murdered during Apartheid, whose name it bears. Jansen wasn’t pulling any punches, saying responsibility for SA’s failing education system couldn’t end with the state.
The name of Imam Abdullah Haron is not heard as often as it deserves to be these days. Haron, born in 1924 in Cape Town, was a Muslim cleric of unprecedentedly brave and progressive ideals. Haron established the Claremont Muslim Youth Association and the Muslim News monthly newspaper, and used both forums to circulate his forward-thinking ideas about Islam and South African society. Haron established close ties with activists like the PAC’s Robert Sobukwe, the Black Sash’s Eulalie Stott, Alex la Guma and Albie Sachs, and he also played a major role in consolidating Muslim-Christian relationships in Cape Town.
Haron, in his sermons, emphasised the shared brotherhood between Muslims and black South Africans, and called on his community to support the black struggle. He is remembered particularly for an emotional address he gave on 1961 on the topic of the Group Areas Act, which he described as “inhuman, barbaric and un-Islamic”, as well as “a complete negation of the fundamental principles of Islam”.
With strong ties to both the PAC and ANC, Haron was warned that things were heating up for him in the mid to late 60s, but he did not leave the country. On 28 May 1969, Haron was detained by the Security Branch at Caledon Square. He was never to see his wife or children again: he was murdered in detention on 27 September 1969. His death was, typically, recorded as due to “falling down the staircase”.
Haron’s memory today lives on through the Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust, run by a board of trustees which includes Haron’s youngest daughter, Fatima Haron-Masoet. Each year a memorial lecture is held; past speakers have included erstwhile Economic Development minister Ebrahim Patel and former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs. This year it was UFS rector Jonathan Jansen’s turn to give an address, which he titled ‘Has tolerance not a limit?’ – a line taken from Haron’s fiery 1961 attack on the Group Areas Act.
Jansen paid tribute to Haron’s “strong sense of humane values rooted in his faith – dignity, respect, fairness”. The Imam was a man with a deep commitment to education: though his own stay in South Africa’s formal education system did not extend beyond primary school, he sought education for his own children “with desperation”. Haron strove for equality for all humans in society; though a devout Muslim, he served all from a non-partisan perspective. He was courageous in the face of injustice, not making plans to escape despite an awareness that the net was closing on him.
Furthermore, said Jansen, Haron had an “internationalist orientation”, developed through wide travel and an understanding of global struggles for justice. “He discovered the Muslim Brotherhood before CNN did,” Jansen pointed out (a reference to the fact that the Egyptian movement was an influence on Haron), to laughter from the audience.
Jansen explained that he had titled his talk ‘Has tolerance not a limit?’ because it seemed to him sometimes that South Africa was reaching the limits of tolerance. He cited the 41 schools which have been closed since June in the Northern Cape because of vandalism and burnings, relating not to education but to the lack of tarred roads in the municipality. He said it was clear that anger and frustration was building, and that “it is in education that our tolerance is being severely stretched”.
Jansen gave six examples of features of our education system currently which he believes should not be tolerated. Firstly, the fact that the gap between privileged schools and poor schools has remained constant, and that a small percentage of affluent schools are de-racialised, but the poorest schools remain black. Secondly, that the schools of the poor are routinely disrupted by adults – in the form of unions, or gangsterism – while the privileged schools continue uninterrupted. Thirdly, that academic results of rich schools remain consistently high, while learners in poor schools consistently under-perform.
The fourth feature, Jansen said, was the shameful fact that the South African national education system consistently appeared near the bottom of ranking league tables in Africa and elsewhere, despite the fact that we invest more money in education per capita than almost any other third-world country. “When you are competing with Guinea-Bissau, you are in serious trouble,” Jansen warned.
Fifthly, he said, the academic standards for passing grades in South Africa are now so low that few universities take Senior Certificate results seriously any more. This tendency – to push students through even though it is clear they are not succeeding – he attributed to what US columnist Michael Gerson termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Jansen spoke of a school in Khayelitsha which, at the entrance, has a sign which gladdens his heart: “No excuses”, it says in big letters.
Lastly, Jansen pointed to the “weak foundations of learning” in the education system, where problems within maths and literacy are not corrected early on, but merely passed on to the next educational level. “So everyone passes, but we postpone the bad news,” Jansen said. “If you get together five university students randomly and ask them to read you a passage from a book, you will see what trouble our country is in.”
But the real question is why this educational crisis persists. For one thing, Jansen said, the problem is that public officials all place students in the best and richest schools, where they never feel the effects of union disruption or textbook non-delivery. Similarly, he said, “show me one person on the Pan South African Language Board [PANSALB] who sends their kid to a non-English school”. In this way the newly privileged lose touch with the plight of the poor, and the poor lose faith in the newly privileged to act to improve their situation (which is why they bypass establishment channels, as happened in Marikana).
But he said that public officials were not the only ones to blame in this scenario. “We have given over our authority to government and believe it is only the state who should be held accountable,” Jansen said. “But where are the parents?” He said that the weakness of parental organisation should also be looked at as a contributing factor. And then there are the teachers themselves: “I cannot believe that teachers can draw a salary but deny students access to education that can only come through teaching,” Jansen said. “For poor children, teachers are the only chance between a life of poverty and a life of hope”. Like other professions such as accounting or medicine, he suggested, teachers should be subjected to greater accountability.
Yes, tolerance has a limit, Jansen concluded, but this is where things become dangerous in a society: “when the nobility of activism is replaced with the vulgarity of gangsterism”. What, then, can we do to address the education crisis?
All sectors of society need to say genoeg is genoeg (enough is enough), Jansen said, and he called in particular for faith-based communities to take the lead in this regard. Then, as Equal Education have been advocating for, legislation must be set to ensure minimum standards in schools: that, at the least, each child has a book, a teacher, a roof under which to learn. Furthermore, parents need to mobilise to demand quality education, and communities need to “re-assert the inherent value of good public education”. Children need to understand and value, Jansen said, the idea that “you don’t do education to get work. You do education to get educated.”
Finally, Jansen suggested, “we need every citizen with the privilege of education to do something to change the chances of the poor”. If we wait for government we will be waiting forever, he said; we need what he called the “moral underground” to play their part too. He cited the example of staff members at the University of the Free State who pay towards the education of the poor.
“In my account of education, I have drawn liberally on the ideas of Imam Haron,” Jansen said in conclusion: most notably Haron’s refusal to separate school and society, or individual agency and political authority, because he saw them as the same thing. Jansen called on the audience to let Haron inspire them to do more to address the education crisis. “If we all make that commitment, then Imam Abdullah Haron did not die in vain,” he said.
- Rebecca Davis writes for the Daily Maverick online. This article was published on the Daily Maverick online.