Since the introduction of republican politics, as the alternative to aristocratic rule, the vote has determined those who exercise power on behalf of the people in a given society. The quest to create societies whose opportunities are allocated on the basis of merit – as opposed to hereditary – has been well received across the globe. This is the emotive force behind “democracy.” Along with democracy, other force – equally emotive – that has been pursued as a means of achieving egalitarian societies has been education. However, the collapse of democracy and education is creating a predicament for societies, and the effects may be most pronounced in Africa.
Out of 40 million South Africans eligible to vote in the recently concluded May 8 elections 27 million (75%) registered to vote. Approximately 10 million people did not register to vote. This elected to stay away despite a widespread sensitisation campaign by that country’s Electoral Commission geared towards ensuring a large ballot turnout. Six million of the ten million (60%) are youth under 30 years old, the group that was the main target of the sensitisation campaign. These youth don’t give a damn.
Most of the youth said in interviews that they are disillusioned by politics. They don’t see it as an avenue for change in their lives. Some who had voted in the past feel that they have all along been cheated into thinking that their vote counted vis-à-vis meaningful change in their lives. Fool me once.
Youths are equally disillusioned by education. Like politics, they don’t see education as leading to change in their lives. Increasingly, few see it as a means for socioeconomic mobility. At least not in ways that the generations before them perceived education.
What’s at stake? If perhaps the most powerful tools for egalitarian pursuits are disappearing, what will replace them? If the answer is that nothing is going to replace them, then what kind of society should be expected from a situation of their absence?
Perhaps the question warrants repetition. If the erosion of the vote and education persists, what are the consequences?
While trends from across the world – the U.S., U.K., Brazil, and France, for instance – suggests that what is happening is a global phenomenon whose present expression is “populism,” there are peculiar ways in which different parts of the world will experience these effects.
Disillusionment in Africa
The trouble with Africa is that it is neither sure about education nor about democracy. Consequently, it may be a misnomer to say that democracy and education are facing a “collapse.” The political systems and institutions that were bequeathed to Africans were defective in as far as serving the democratic aspirations of Africans. This status quo was to be maintained by the bequeathed education systems.
Since independence Africans have responded to the collapse of democracy and education through an evacuation mentality. It is very logical. If Africans were committed to the status quo mimicry, it made more sense to migrate to source in pursuit of the original in western capitals. The ability to evacuate self and offspring became a life purpose in and of itself for the African, a standard definition of success.
This logic has informed much of the corruption that is nothing other than a rat-race to evacuation: to amass as much as possible for the assurance of evacuation. Those fortunate enough to gain upward mobility tend to evacuate their offspring, their most precious possession, ostensibly to study. Indeed, parents who are unsure that their station in life – gained honestly or otherwise – can be passed on to their children are eager to encourage them, whether they compete studies or not, to stay away. As Chinua Achebe said in “Man of the People,” only those who have never been beaten by the rain can think about going back outside after getting shelter.
Consequently, after circumventing the “collapse” of education back home, the decision whether to return to it or not depends largely on the extent to which “democracy” has collapsed. If it is partial destruction, then the decision to return home is easier than if the collapse has been total. In other words, Africans are eager to “make a contribution” to their country, if only they perceive the political order back home as being able to allow them to conceive a meaningful future there.
If Africans are going to live with the democracy and education that they were bequeathed, the evacuation mentality will persist. Only in those countries where efforts have been made to circumvent the two will Africans consider staying – or returning – home to be part of nation building.
Rwanda’s stubbornness – and its reputation as stubborn – has allowed it to circumvent the most pernicious elements of neoliberalism, to craft a largely organic political order. While the same cannot be said about education, this state craft is largely responsible for the fact that more Rwandan professionals disproportionably return home more than their African counterparts to be part of the change that is taking place in the country.
The country’s brand of politics, particularly revolving around accountability –allows its people to see politics as a vehicle for positive change in their lives. In fact, it is accountability that drives the belief that even the areas that are lagging behind – like education – will eventually be resolved as well, and that perhaps they can be part of that effort. But this kind of goodwill cannot last forever, except that it is reproduced by consistency in accountability.
But if Rwanda could fix politics in ways that it acts as a pull – rather than a push – factor as is the case in much of Africa, why does the evacuation mentality persist in education? Why hasn’t the politics fixed the education system in order to render it immune to this flight mentality?
The thing to consider is the very nature of education. As society’s software, education is an intangible whose very nature renders it immune to the kinds of accountability that are applicable to other sectors. For instance, progress in a sector like agriculture may be measured according to inputs and yields, and similar indicators can be the basis for creating a system of accountability. However, the best that can be done for the education sector is to believe that those overseeing it have the goodwill to do the right thing. There are only a handful of sectors whose accountability is a matter of goodwill.
Consequently, as I noted previously, competing imperatives have prevailed under the radar in Rwanda’s education system, which has preserved the flight mentality to schools in the western world.
The world is not returning to hereditary rule. However, the modes that have driven republicanism have been eroding. The youth – not just in South Africa – are rejecting the status quo. Yet, they no longer have a place to run to since even in those places similar disillusionment persists. Chinua Achebe said “the rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago.” It will take a certain stubbornness because those we used to copy are as confused and unsure. Otherwise, it’s about to rain thunder.