Cablegate: Outcomes-Based Education in South Africa-Will It Stay Or

DE RUEHTN #0236/01 3300734
R 250734Z NOV 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) Summary. An article appearing in the November 14 edition of
the Cape Times asserts that the end may be near for South Africa's
12-year experiment with Outcomes-Based Education (OBE), a
controversial pedagogical model adopted by the ANC Government in the
mid-90s in the wake of the demise of apartheid. The article's
claim that the fate of OBE is soon to be on the agenda of the ANC's
national leadership is bolstered by a recent discussion between the
CG and the rector of the University of the Western Cape Brian
O'Connell. The rector is optimistic that ANC President Jacob Zuma
understands that if education in South Africa is not reformed, the
country's future is at risk. In contrast to the November 14
article, on November 21 the Mail and Guardian ran a piece entitled
"OBE Here to Stay," which quoted Education Minister Naledi Pandor as
saying the Ministry of Education has no intention of ditching OBE.
End Summary.

2. (U) The November 14 edition of the Cape Times carries an article
entitled "Outcomes-
Based Education May Be On the Way Out." Based on a document
purportedly leaked from "an education conference in Gauteng" last
week, the article asserts that OBE must be reviewed and, if
necessary, abolished. Among the reasons for scrapping OBE,
according to the document, are badly trained teachers,
under-resourced schools, unacceptably high illiteracy and innumeracy
levels among learners, and dismal test scores when compared with
international averages.

3. (U) While definitions of OBE vary, and indeed OBE is a
notoriously slippery concept, one
definition (Wikipedia's) of OBE is "a model of education that
rejects the traditional focus on what the school provides to
students, in favor of making students demonstrate that they 'know
and are able to do' whatever the required outcomes are." In
post-apartheid South Africa, OBE has meant (according to its
detractors, who are legion) declining student performances, learners
leaving schools without basic skills such as literacy and numeracy,
and teachers who are confused and alienated by mystifying
bureaucratic demands.

4. (U) On November 12, the CG met with Brian O'Connell, Rector of
the University of the Western Cape. A former Fulbright scholar
(Columbia), Western Cape Member of the Executive Council for
Education, participant in the struggle, and long-time activist in
the Western Cape, Professor O'Connell has made education in South
Africa his life-long commitment. UWC was established circa 1960,
specifically as the "coloured" university, and almost from its
inception was involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

5. (U) Professor O'Connell spoke effusively and with great passion
about his concern for the future of South Africa and the failure of
the ANC government in the realm of education. Specifically, he
lamented that the adoption of OBE by the ANC government in the
mid-90s was a catastrophe and had led to a generation of uneducated
South Africans - people who cannot read adequately, who cannot do
math, who are illiterate in the basics of science and everything
else. While he conceded that in theory, OBE was not necessarily a
bad concept, in the South African context it had been warped by
political correctitude, and become a mantra among former struggle
leaders, e.g. Kader Asmal, Minister of Education at the time, and
others who chose to see it as the key to overcoming the racist
apartheid system of the previous regime. Thus they had "thrown out
the baby - mastery of the three Rs, solid grounding in the basics -
Qthe baby - mastery of the three Rs, solid grounding in the basics -
with the bathwater of apartheid discrimination." Excellence in
education has been forgotten. O'Connell said that many proponents
of OBE feel that if a student from a formerly disadvantaged group
can not master the material, the problem is not the student, the
problem is the material. The result is that everyone advances to the
next grade, but nobody learns anything. Thus, the greater goal of
making Africans take charge of their own futures, through mastery of
modern science and technology, and thereby taking control of a
modern economy, has been hopelessly compromised.

6. (U) Tears fell from his eyes as O'Connell explained how, in
meeting after meeting with the ANC leadership on education, he was
branded a traitor for pleading the case of excellence in education.
OBE, or at least the warped ANC version of it, was not to be
questioned. He did not, however, give up hope. Recently he had
gained access to the ear of Jacob Zuma, and he was optimistic that
he was being heard now. O'Connell stated, "Zuma has seen the light
with regards to abolishing OBE." O'Connell believes that the entire
system can be turned around in 10 years. For his part, he is
pushing forward with his plans to make UWC a center for academic
excellence for African students; he points to the construction of a
new science center on campus as a symbol of the university's
determination not to abandon the goal of teaching science to African
students. If the Cape Times article is to be trusted, O'Connell's
optimism may be justified.

7. (U) In contrast to the Cape Times article, the November 21 issue

CAPE TOWN 00000236 002 OF 002

of the Mail and Guardian ran an article entitled "OBE Here to Stay."
In the article Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor said the
education department has no intention of ditching OBE. The Minister
continued by saying the system has already been modified and would
continue to be tweaked. Pandor also revealed her plans to set up a
special curriculum implementation committee to look at: expanding
and improving teacher training, reducing the current eight learning
areas in grades four through seven, and improving classroom
materials. In the article Pandor addressed the fact that over the
past week, the media has reported that OBE would be scrapped.
Furthermore, Pandor said she could not understand how the media had
inferred that OBE would be terminated based on the document produced
at a recent meeting which looked at the future of OBE. She noted
that OBE was a necessary change for South Africa and that South
Africa needs to "make it work." She continued by saying, "it would
be an absolute disaster to change it, as we have got buy-in." In
order to make OBE work, South Africa must look at improved
implementation rather than scrapping the program. Minister Pandor
emphasized that the SAG has already altered OBE from its original
approach and that learning outcomes are used as the basis for OBE.

8. (U) Comment. OBE is a controversial subject in SA. When OBE
was first introduced in SA, many viewed it as a way of overcoming
the apartheid system of the previous regime by creating equal
educational opportunities for blacks and coloureds. Unfortunately,
many feel that OBE has not done what it set out to do, namely to
provide equal access and equal opportunities to all races. Today,
under the OBE system many students are failing and SA is failing to
produce graduates who are qualified to find good jobs in the
workplace, further adding to SA's high unemployment rate. The
matric rates have steadily declined in the disadvantaged areas since
the implementation of OBE in the mid 90s. In the townships, ninety
percent of the students fail math and science in their matrics,
whereas wealthy schools have a hundred percent pass rate. Many of
the university rectors feel OBE should be disbanded and that a new
system based on higher standards and critical thinking should be
introduced. End comment.

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