Where is our dignity?
I am sure she must regret saying it, but it was a disturbing revelation. In an interview with a Sunday paper, our Minister of Basic Education let slip on the real reason government persists with the passing standard of 30% for subjects in the National Senior Certificate. It stays at 30%, she said, to allow "slow learners" to exit the system with dignity.
My thoughts drifted back in time to great historical figures like Dr John Dube and Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, from a century ago, to more recent intellectuals like Steve Biko and Neville Alexander, and wondered how their restless spirits must be choking when they hear this kind of utterance by an irresponsible and reckless class of politicians.
These educated activists all agitated for the black child, and they would say there is no connection between a 30% pass and human dignity. They would argue, no doubt, that providing a high-quality education to the first generation of high school graduates not to live under apartheid was in fact a sacred commitment of that long and costly struggle for freedom.
And then my thoughts turned to a contemporary heroine, an ordinary young woman called Zandile Kwela.
She appeared on television with her mother and they openly shared their mixed emotions. Zandile scored seven subject distinctions in the 2012 NSC examinations, including mathematics and physical science.
But her mother had no funds to send her to university. In the background offered by the TV shots you saw the rickety shack and you heard there was no electricity; this remarkable young woman from Menzi High School in Umlazi studied by candlelight. It would surely be a severe injustice if this bright student, despite overcoming incredible odds, would be denied higher education because she lacked money.
We sent the message into cyberspace: try to find the contact details for Zandile. Strangers sprang into action and eventually one of my Facebook "friends" found a set of numbers. I called, congratulated her and introduced myself.
"I have heard of you, professor," she said, with an elegance of voice that told me she had those other qualities required for success at university: personal confidence and a command of the language of instruction.
"We would like to invite you to study at our university without paying a cent. Are you interested?"
She is packing her bags and I have no doubt she will soon become one of the still too few black chartered accountants. I am not sure what happens at Menzi High, but there were a few students clutching bunches of distinctions from this school in a poor, unstable township. Those teachers must have worked very hard and the principal must have led from the front.
What I know for sure is that they set the bar high for all their pupils, and they now reap the fruit of their labours. I am absolutely convinced there are tens of thousands of students who failed and passed poorly in the recent NSC examinations who have the same potential as Zandile to achieve distinctions in their school subjects.
To call them "slow learners" is an insult for they faced two problems: one is poor educational inputs in their 12 years of schooling (poor teaching, lack of textbooks, limited instructional time, and more) and another is the low expectations by the officials serving them. Thirty per cent does not offer dignity; it offers a dead-end street to the children of the poor - no job, no further education, no skills. It is, in fact, a massive indignity being suffered.
Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, from scores of weekly e-mails and direct feedback in public meetings, I now find that the general public knows very well that we are being shafted by these 30% politicians.
And the Grade 12 pupils know it too.
"I'll take this B-pass," a young man told his relative the other day, "but how on earth are these results a B?"
Then there is the story of another young man who wrote to me on Facebook: "How can they tell me I qualify to study for a Bachelor's degree when I got 49% in mathematics?"
It dawned on him that no serious university would take him without a real pass in maths.
Dignity, says my dictionary, means worthiness and self-regard, a sense of honour. In the South African context it means restoring that which was taken away from black people over centuries - a belief that all of us can achieve regardless of skin colour.