American human rights campaigner, Malcom X said that “education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”. For a country to own the future, it needs to be future focused, always preparing, not only for the immediate challenges of today, but also through a vision-oriented approach with a keen eye on the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. Government should be playing its role by initiating debates that point our nation towards the future and the innumerable challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us. The legislation we pass, the debates we have and the policies we implement should be preparing our country and our citizens for the immediate domestic challenges that we face now, but also for the global challenges and opportunities that will confront us going forward. This is what makes the current decision of the national minister of education to suddenly prioritise history as a compulsory subject in our schools rather odd.

Our country should be on the very cutting edge of the debate, on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, the internet of things, coding and rapid advancements in technology and big data applications. With the disruption of the fourth industrial revolution looming, the current job market is going to change significantly in the coming decade. Jobs and work as we know it today will simply not exist. The World Economic Forum report on the future of jobs and skills in Africa, published in May 2017, projects that by 2020 in South Africa alone, “39 percent of core skills required across occupations will be wholly different to what was needed to perform those roles in 2015.” We need to prepare our country and our people for its impacts and position ourselves to take advantage by leveraging the massive opportunities that come with any disruptive moments.
Major advances and changes in key technologies, are going to force South Africa to compete even more than ever before to attract investment. But we cannot compete if we are not even having the debates to prepare us for the future. We cannot compete if we are still indulging in backward looking analogue debates on the past, in a rapidly evolving future-focused digital era. We have a golden opportunity to leap the technological divide, we must grasp it without delay.

The major constraint however is that our education system is broken. Despite the large proportion of national expenditure it receives, its performance and outputs are continually ranked amongst the lowest not only globally but also continentally. Our ability to generate skills and technological capacities is hamstrung. Our schools are producing learners who cannot read or compute, and our universities are churning out graduates who simply do not have the skills to find employment or grow our economy. Policy failure and poor planning has left our citizens, particularly our youth, massively vulnerable.
Nowhere is this more noticeable than in our performance in maths and science, subjects that underpin the knowledge economy. The 2016 Global Information Technology Report released by the World Economic Forum Ranked South Africa last in maths and science for the third consecutive year. The South African Institute of Race Relations in 2017 found that only 33% of matric candidates achieved a pass in maths with a grade of 40% or higher. The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) ranked grade nine pupils 38th out of 39 countries assessed.

Our education system is disjointed and outmoded, with the early childhood development, education, skills development and the research and development function scattered across four different government departments. They all need to be massively overhauled and re-aligned in a way that will give South Africa the competitive edge in the new economy to come. Instead of focusing romantically on subjects like history, our school curricula should be refocused, in a laser like manner, on dramatically improving our capacity in the key STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). It is these subjects that will give our citizens an opportunity to compete in the economy to come.
With the right mindset and determination we can build a skills and technological powerhouse that can harness the key levers of change in order to allow the youth of our country to ride the wave of the disruption to come and cash in on being world leaders in key modern industries. But we can only do this if government, legislators, business and our universities and colleges start leading that debate, fixing education and prioritising skills development.

If we fail to do so, we will be failing our country and our people, particularly our youth, who will be left hopelessly behind. Our economy will risk sliding even further into decline and our citizens will be unable to compete globally. Moving South Africa boldly and bravely into this new era should become our obsession, it is the very best thing we could do for the future of our country.