Educating Africa’s Children: Opening the Gateway to Global Citizenship

“Educating Africa’s Children: Opening the Gateway to Global Citizenship”
Speech Delivered by Trevor Ncube to the African Confederation of Principals Conference
Cape Town; September 24, 2016


There is no polite way to put this: without a world class education that initials global ambitions in our children, Africa will continue to be the forgotten continent. There is a direct correlation between a country’s fortunes and the return on its investment in education. I’m not suggesting that we should all become bean counters, but unless we grasp that how we design and implement our education infrastructure has a big impact on how we design our society.
You only have to look at the number of significant new inventions and companies of the last ten years to realize that Africa’s share is not adequate. The solution does not lie in finding billions more to send Africa’s high school leavers to the likes of Harvard or Stanford. This would certainly be transformative at the individual level, but it would leave the structural shortcomings intact.

And I understand just how tempting and easy it is to focus on the more prestigious university education, given the visibility of Ivy League schools and the Oxbridges. There is nothing more heart-warming than reading individual stories of triumph, of students who scaled impossible heights to land a scholarship to these outstanding institutions. So just to be clear, I’m not dismissing these institutions. but what I am saying is that to truly make a giant shift in the fortunes of Africa’s children we need to ensure that there’s a structural readiness to prepare our children for global citizenship.

In other words, it is the primary and high schools that should be the focal point of preparation for global citizenship. I’m not alone in strongly believing that the most important work in education occurs well before children arrive at university or college. If Africa’s children don’t benefit from a solid foundation that introduces them to a dynamic curriculum by the time they are ten years old, it is too late to expect ‘university’ to fix a weak foundation. We already have these individually brilliant schools across the continent.

Many of these schools are extra-ordinarily expensive for the bulk of the citizens. Regrettably they tend to be accessible to those who are well off, and this creates a vicious cycle of locking achievement to an elite. No society can prepare for future prosperity by not fully tapping into the talent pool because of financial constraints.

Perhaps the current brouhaha around ‘free education’ or for ‘feesmustfall’ in South Africa must be understood in the context of rampant inflation in the cost of education whilst family incomes have remained stagnant or fallen drastically. Given the alarming levels of unemployment across the continent, it is also clear the financial burden on most households makes quality education a luxury, not a necessity. The net effect of this is to rob the society of a huge chunk of its talent pool.
Allow me to share a bit of my story to illustrate the importance of access to affordable education as a way of opening the gateway to global citizenship.
I am the first child in a family of six. My parents were domestic workers and could not afford to send us to school. I started my education in a poor rural school which could never have equipped me with a world class education. Most of our rural schools on the continent are poorly manned and resourced. They do more damage to the kids than good.
Because I was dyslexic my primary school teachers in rural areas considered me dull. They were not aware of my condition and thought corporate punishment was the solution to my failure to read and write. In fact one time my grade one teacher beat me so hard that my bottom bled and I had problems sitting for days. Needless to say no amount of beating could help me overcome my dyslexia. Instead this made me hate school.
My pregnant fourth grade teacher could not stand my face. She accused me of being very ugly, an accusation which I continue to deny up to this day. And I am sure present company today agrees with me. She would make me sit with my back to the rest of the class because she said she did not want to give birth to a child as ugly as me.
Thus, my first 4 years of education scarred me in a big way. The abuse from the teachers affected my esteem and the quality of the education was faulty and handicapped me considerably. I still battle with reading and comprehension and still cant spell. Sometimes I battle with bouts of acute self-doubt and I ascribe this to what happened during these formative years.

I moved to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largets city for my 5th grade and my life began to take a turn for the better. The man responsible for this turn-around was my 6th and 7th Grade Teacher Mr Bafundi Mpofu who told me for the first time that I had potential. He spotted something in me that all my teachers this far had failed to notice and that I had been told so many times did not exist.

I was used to being told that I was ugly, dull and that I would never amount to anything and I believed this. Were it not of this man I doubt I would have gone beyond primary school. He kept telling me that I was good and after two years I started believing that I was good and that l would become somebody in life. But I had been damaged already and it would take time to reverse some of this.

My two experiences in the hands of a bad and good teacher have taught me the following lessons;
Teachers can be build or destroy dreams
We all need someone who believes in us
WE all need affirmation
Good teachers are an indispensable part of opening the gateway to global citizenship.
The other part of my life that is worth sharing is that I might have been a junior school dropout were it not for my father’s employers who were kind enough to pay for my fees until I made it to university on a government loan and grant. My parents domestic worker salaries could not afford to send the six of us to junior school and high school.

Now reflect on this: how many African kids with even greater potential than me have been left behind simply because they come from poor backgrounds. I estimate that the majority of African kids in the rural areas and townships fall into this category.
In fact available statistics indicate that primary school enrollment in African countries is among the lowest in the world. 33 million primary school-aged children in Sub-Saharan Africa do not go to school. 18 million of these children are girls. In Sub-Saharan Africa only two-thirds of children who start primary school reach the final grade.
This is criminal particularly considering that financial resources are directed at wasteful things like arms procurement and the lifestyles of our politicians. The continent is not benefiting from its human resources because of skewed priorities.

In its 2004 report titled “Educating Children in Poor Countries” the International Monetary Fund says “In an ideal world, primary education would be universal and publicly financed and all children would be able to attend school regardless of their parents’ ability and willingness to pay.”

The IMF goes on to say the reason for this is that when any child fails to acquire the basic skills needed to function as a productive , responsible member of society, society as a whole – not to mention the individual child – loses. “The cost of educating children is far outweighed by the cost of not educating them,” the report says.

Perhaps even more shocking is a 2012 research which points to the fact that another 37 million African children will learn so little while there are in school that they will not be much better off than those kids who never attended. Without doubt this all militates against future economic growth and social development.
And sadly girls tend to be the worst affected in failure to access good quality education while research shows benefits to society are large when the girls receive good education.
Let me briefly look at the 10 reasons why children don’t go to school and thus will are permanently locked out global citizenship and these are;
1. Because they are girls – girls make up over half of children out of primary education across the world and only 30% of the girls are entolled in secondary education
2. Because the live in war zones – the long termeffects of growing up in a conflict zone are devastating and UNICEF estamates that 48,5 million children worldwide are missing school because of wars and conflict (South Sudan etc
3. Because they have disabilities – here the barriers range from practical issues of transportation- many children have to walk to school – to the education policy of countries not supporting children with disabilities
4. Because their countries are poor – Some of the poorest countries in the world struggle to finance an education system for all their children. And yet evidence shows that if we invest more in education, poverty is reduced at a faster rate, there are long term benefits and gender equality
5. Because of child marriage – It is estimated that 15 million girls are married before they turn 18. Nigeria is a good example of this.
6. Because of natural disasters – unforeseen events such as earthquakes, floods and disease (Ebola) can derail education for millions
7. Because of too few teachers – It is the lack of qualified teachers that leaves one in five children who attend primary school in sub-Saharan Africa unable to read and write by the time the leave.
8. Because they are a child laborer – 11% of all children in the world are working instead of learning.
9. Because of poor sanitation – many girls- particularly adolescents who are menstruating – don’t go to school because of lack of privacy.
10. Because there is no school – In sub-Saharn Africa more than 95 million schoolchildren don’t have a desk
In addition to all these important factors the mother tongue education remains a problem area for many schools across the continent. It is nearly impossible to grasp the advantages that teaching children in their own mother tongues confers on them. I have seen some of the most gifted children stumble because they have to expend unnecessary resources learning a foreign language. I know some of you may believe that it is contradictory to talk about global citizenship and mother tongue education. But the two reinforce each other, instead of canceling each other out.
I live and work in both Johannesburg and Harare and I know from first hand and anecdotal experience the importance that parents attach to the education of their children. Not far from my home are some of the most sought after schools. Two of them are truly expensive private schools. The other one is a government school with outstanding faculty. It is impossibly difficult to get a place at either of them.


Waiting lists run several years, and the stories of parents registering their children on the waiting lists soon after birth are legion. This tells you just how much parents want their children to have access to a world class education. At these neighboring schools, the parents who get their child in are always elated. Those who aren’t successful are crushed. And so they should be because getting in or being left out is often the difference between becoming a global citizen or being left behind.
Further afield, I have friends who live in Nairobi. I’m shocked by the fees they have to pay for their children’s education. You need to be truly well off to afford a quality education. The same has happened in Zimbabwe. These developments should worry any of us who have dreams of Africa taking her place as an equal partner in innovation, development and achievement because education is a key catalyst for any of these. Those countries that offer accessible, high quality universal education invariably outperform those that do cannot guarantee quality.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the transformative power of education on a nation quite like the comparative fortunes of Ghana and South Korea over the last half century. It is impossible to believe that in the early 60’s Ghana ranked similar with South Korea in terms of development and education. But fast forward some 50 years later, and the differences couldn’t be more stark.


I was re-reading the truly seminal book, Culture Matters, edited by LAWRENCE E. HARRISON and SAMUEL P. HUNTINGTON when I was struck by Professor Huntington’s comparative comments on Ghana & South Korea.

Here is Huntington in his own words:” In the early 1990s, I happened to come across economic data on Ghana and South Korea in the early 1960s, and I was astonished to see how similar their economies were then. These two countries had roughly comparable levels of per capita GNP; similar divisions of their economy among primary products, manufacturing, and services; and overwhelmingly primary product exports, with South Korea producing a few manufactured goods. Also, they were receiving comparable levels of economic aid. Thirty years later, South Korea had become an industrial giant with the fourteenth largest economy in the world, multinational corporations, major exports of automobiles, electronic equipment”,

He continues “No such changes had occurred in Ghana, whose per capita GNP was now about one-fifteenth that of South Korea’s. How could this extraordinary difference in development be explained? Undoubtedly, many factors played a role, but it seemed to me that culture had to be a large part of the explanation. South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values”


I’m not picking on Ghana because it has made the worst mistakes on the continent. South Korea has powered its way to the top of the global development charts. It is a highly innovative society, with globally dominant brands, such as LG, Samsung, Hyundai and Kia, to name just a few. It is some 50 years now since Sub Saharan Africa came of age with the achievement of political independence. But economic aid continues to be an important source of the national budget. Many of the most affluent families still outsource the education of their children to Western schools, colleges and universities,


While Huntington’s concerns are much broader and include culture, in its broadest sense, he touches on the role of education. And this is where I’d like to focus my attention. At the heart of this unbelievable change in the fortunes of the two countries lies the aggressive investment in a globally relevant education by South Korea. My sense is that Africa has many students who are gifted. But there is a shortage of institutions with the infrastructure and the faculty to make it anywhere in the world.


Given Africa’s extraordinary share of the problem of migration, let me say at the outset that my understanding of ‘global citizenship’ isn’t that the best African minds should go and work in New York, London or Paris. That amounts to a brain drain. What I understand this term to mean is that while working in Kampala, Kigali, Nairobi, Bulawayo, Lagos, Addis or Gaborone, these young achievers will take their place amongst their peers and be ranked equally in the work they do , be it engineering, telecoms, social entrepreneurship, innovation, art or any of the emerging fields.
I’m encouraged by the work of young visionaries like the Ghana born Fred Swaniker together with his partners have created the African Leadership Academy. Swaniker’s backstory reminds us of the links between institutions and purpose. If you go to the website of the African Leadership Academy you learn that Swaniker discovered that some African parents were paying extremely high school fees to send their children abroad. He envisioned a world-class academic institution on the African continent where the most outstanding young students can develop into leaders who are passionate about the continent and eager to make an impact.
Today the African Leadership Academy functions as a beacon of hope for the next generation. After more than a decade in operation, it has produced nearly a thousand graduates who hail from across the continent. The model is an important one because it is based on potential and ability, not merely financial ability. The curriculum is a mix of the academic, entrepreneurship and social studies that install an awareness of Africa’s place in the world. The institution draws from a Pan African pool of talent and for those of us who usually bemoan the closed nature of African societies, this model bodes well for the future as these young leaders will most likely take the ties they establish at the academy to shape a new Africa when they begin running organizations on the continent.

One of the challenges I’d like to throw those who’ve done extraordinarily well is to reinvest in education. It is wonderful to see the impact that Oprah’s Academy for Girls has made on the lives of young women in South Africa. But I do not see or hear enough that instead of buying another private jet, more of Africa’s ultra wealthy billionaires are building great schools with globally competent faculty. Because only in this way are we going to open the gateway to global citizenship in the kind of numbers that will make the rest of the world notice that Africa is not here to play games.
I have no doubt in my mind that the Africa Rising momentum would great further impetus if we invested more in education our children than we do funding the lifestyles of our political leaders and if resources were not sucked by corruption. The quality of our teachers, the relevance of our education clearly needs attention if the continent is to produce world class talent. If I had my way teachers would be the most highly paid members of our society. And our education would be relevant to our national economic aspirations.


2017-06-07T20:19:49+00:00 Speeches|