The Problem of Piecemeal Reform

Disclaimer: this is a difficult piece to write.

It is difficult on two fronts: firstly, because the conclusion is frustrating. The end point I hope to illustrate is deeply unsatisfying. Unfortunately this does not make it untrue.

The second frontier of difficulty comes from the fact that, at least in South Africa (but not only in South Africa), people are sensitive to criticism, and we often conflate critiques of ideas with criticisms of people. I’m not immune to this myself: I hate having my ideas challenged, or even found wrong. So to those of you I consider friends who might not like what I write here, please see it as an engagement around ideas. I still care for you very much.

I wish to problematize the issue of ‘piecemeal reform’ in the education system. This is an issue that applies across many different interventions, including:

  • collaboration (i.e. charter) schools;
  • starting up independent, privately funded schools for the poor (whether fee charging or not);
  • small-scale NGO interventions after school (e.g. private classes on Saturdays);
  • direct private philanthropy towards individual public schools i.e. any other injection of resources (whether man hours, money, infrastructure or other) into individual institutions or groups of institutions that share a banner or name, without going via the structures of government under which that institution operates.

Let me first state up front that I do not in any way doubt the good intentions of people who undertake such projects. This critique is not an indictment on people’s desire to help, or to effect change. It must be recognised, and respected, that many people who put their money-if not their lives-into these projects, genuinely wish to see a better society, especially for our most vulnerable citizens i.e. our children. Moreover, it must be recognised that most of them are deeply frustrated. Efforts at effecting broad change have failed, hitting political walls, funding constraints, scaling issues, M&E barriers and any other version of red tape you can imagine. People wish to try and exercise their agency, and when they fail to achieve this through the state, they attempt to bypass the state.


With all the attention on the localised positive effects for one or two people, schools or communities that such undertakings bring, there is a critical issue that falls out of focus. There is a cost to these projects that goes untallied, and it is a steep price indeed.

For every such intervention-especially in a marketized schooling system like South Africa’s-…every such project irreparably fragments the public education fabric.

Each of these private interventions creates a new node, a new ‘broken off piece’ that cannot be reintegrated into the whole. And in doing so, the reach of any coherent system to conduct oversight, to redistribute resources from one area to another and to get a big-level picture of who is doing what, where, how, when and with whom, becomes increasingly difficult.

Moreover, the process is irreversible. Like smashing a clay pot, putting all the pieces back together again is just about impossible. Or imagine, if you will, an actual piece of fabric. One hole can be mended. With skill, several. But each hole weakens the structural integrity of the fabric, each tear ever so slightly weakens the tensile strength of the weave. And with enough tears and holes, mending becomes impossible, and the whole thing falls apart.

This thorny issue came up when discussing effective education interventions with a friend. He was (understandably) frustrated about how to effect systematic change, and he and his wife were considering the option of starting up a small school of their own to try and help the children they work with daily. At least this way, he argued, he could have more autonomy to do what he needed to do, and he knew his efforts would be benefitting the children he worked with in a real and tangible way.

I countered that yes, these were all true. His error is not in reasoning, but in omission: he must recognise the cost inherent in the project, and whether he was willing to contribute to the fragmentation of the public system that he claimed he believed in and wanted to fight for. Such costs are, in business speak, referred to as negative externalities-hidden downsides that are borne by society as whole, rather than by the individual entity that incurs them.

How does this fragmentation happen? What do I mean?

Another analogy: and please bear with me, this one is a little raw. But it makes the point, so as analogy it works.

Traffic pile ups

Think of good service delivery of quality education as analogous to adequate transport infrastructure. At the moment, as things stand, the system is horribly clogged and underperforming, like Cape Town’s traffic woes. Everyone is affected. The tailbacks on the highway are huge. People are late for work. Family time is intruded upon, as is sleep and health, as people have to leave earlier and earlier to commute to their jobs daily. Frustration is rising. “Peak hour” is increasingly less distinct from just everyday traffic: the intersection from the M5 to the N2, for example, is a nightmare, no matter the time of day.

There are clear systemic interventions that could improve the system. The road is widened (this is an example of systemic improvement that has an initial up front cost in the form of roadworks for improved performance later down the line). The city could hire more buses to reduce the number of private vehicles. We could fix the trains to get people off road and onto rail. All of these are system-level interventions that would benefit everybody involved. They need to be implemented by the agent that has the oversight, authority and reach to affect the whole system. That is: the government.

Now imagine being in that 5km long tailback trying to get to work. Every single driver is frustrated. Being ‘in the system’ i.e. obeying the rules of the road, is not getting you what you need. We know that the occasional deviant will pull out of the traffic and cut in further down the queue. Or, if you’re a minibus taxi, just pull up in the emergency lane and butt in at the last moment. Everyone behind throws their hands up in dispair!

Some of this deviance is driven by pure selfishness. Some by genuine need. A person rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital may feel his deviance is morally justified (and it is!). A bus driver may reason that he should get priority, given he represents a far larger number of people than the individual motorist driving alone and contributing to congestion. These scenarios help us to realise that ‘breaking away’ from the conventions of the system to pursue our own interests, or those immediately in our surroundings (our passengers, our families), are not always morally reprehensible: that is, ‘cutting in’ is not always just pure selfishness.

Rather, this scenario helps us to understand what happens when deviance, encouraged by frustration at non-performance, reaches a certain critical threshold. Because it is a scenario many of us have already begun to witness in our daily lives. One cuts in. Then two. Then three. It starts to become normal. The cutting in is not innocuous: it actually further clogs the system, those individuals taking a short cut at the cost of the others in the queue. Eventually, those who would normally choose to adhere to the common public system eventually get ‘the moer in’ with paying the price for other people’s perceived selfishness and they too begin to scrum and prioritize themselves, instead of waiting in the queue. And the entire convention disintegrates.

Getting that system back once that tipping point has been reached, is nigh on impossible. Entropy has permeated into the system and the structures have fallen apart.

How are traffic pile ups like the education system?

Each little private endeavour, which benefits one school over the others, is akin to a car cutting in. “No it isn’t!” I hear you say “I’m doing this because I want to help! Not because I’m selfish”. But this is missing the point: the person rushing to the hospital wants to help too. Just like a small school, he’s trying to do what he can for the person next to him because this seems the limit of his personal agency and scope to assist.

But that doesn’t change the effect his cutting in has on the queue. Or the irreversibility on the structural integrity of the system and conventions that keep the traffic from chaos.

We have a marketized schooling system. Children and parents are free to move around, ‘shopping’ for the school they think ‘offers the better service’. That means, any school that is perceived to have something ‘better’… whether it is ‘better teachers’, ‘better funding’, ‘better infrastructure’, ‘better management’… even if that perception is not substantiated with anything factual… any such school will create attraction points on the education landscape that naturally draw learners and parents who are more mobile and more enabled to select and be selected.

If a school is started in a township that purports to offer better maths and science opportunities, that school will command applications from the learners who, at least at a local level, excel at maths and science and want that excellence supported. The others get left behind in the other schools, who then are labelled as ‘failing’ (relatively), further exacerbating the impression of difference. The schooling landscape becomes a litany of ‘sinks’ and ‘sources’, as each school is inherently pitched against their neighbours to attract learners who are ‘easier to teach’. Localised interventions enhance these differences.

Like the guy rushing his wife to the hospital, perceiving her need over that of others, the local intentions are good, and the effect for the one or two people/children/schools involved is positive. But if we fail to see the negative costs borne by others in so doing, we ignore that we are slowly snipping away at our education fabric. For each private school that is started, another snip. Another institution that will never be reintegrated back into the fold of a system whose purpose for existing is exactly to have oversight across differences, across geographies and strata. After all, isn’t that what a government is for? To see the bigger picture on our behalf, to move resources where they are needed most?

If you do not believe in formalised government, for whatever reason, that is fine. Such fragmentation may be seen as the natural decline of a dated behemoth that has outlived its usefulness. But most people actually do not subscribe to this line of reasoning. There is an expectation that government will one day deliver the services we expect, once it has pulled up its socks. And its sock are, let’s be honest, sitting pretty low. But we need to notice when our little local projects to ‘help in the meantime’ prevent the socks from ever being pulled up at all. The system is too fragmented, with no central oversight. And nothing short of rather radical social re-engineering will ever forge the shards back into a cohesive whole.

The alternative is daunting, exhausting and demoralising: we continue to struggle and press for change from those who we gave a mandate to control the levers of power on our behalf. We do not give up on the ideal of a functional, quality public education system, where redress and equity can be enacted through coherent decision making. We continue to write in to our local councillors badgering them that our wait in the queue to get to work every morning is just unacceptable. We continue to hold our local education authorities to account. We push for capacitation of the system so that it can function to further all of our needs, because inequality hurts all of us.

There is only one mechanism to mitigate inequality in our education system. A capacitated, coherent public education system that has the means to see the broader picture and make the moves required to keep gaps from widening. All our little fractured projects dotted around the landscape will never have this reach, and hence will never be able to reduce inequality at the system level. They will only perhaps help the few in our immediate vicinity, often at the invisible cost of those elsewhere.

For each of us who wish to ‘help’, we should do so knowing the full cost of our intervention. And ask whether we would make the same decisions once all the negative externalities are in full view. Just like mining companies who pitch prospective digs on the potential positive outputs and ignore the future costs of pollution, small-scale private education interventions should, I feel, be a little more circumspect in their cost-benefit book-keeping when it comes to analysing the positive effects they claim to offer.


[please note that this post in no way exonerates the current poor performance of government, nor ignores that piecemeal delivery on the part of government e.g. between provinces or districts, also exacerbates inequalities. That is not the point of the analysis.]

[* with thanks to one K. Marx for the term ‘piecemeal reform’]

Sorry for what?

Prompted by the recent title of Haji Mohamed Dawjee’s book (and, I’ve subsequently discovered, the book shares a title with a Demi Lovato single and a bio by an actor from Glee), the prevalence of the phrase “Sorry, not sorry” has got me noticing how many times women I know say ‘sorry’.

About everything.

And I (kind of) know myself. So me too.

The most interesting part of this noticing is how men don’t do it. The gender disparity is stark. We women constantly, frequently (over)use the word ‘sorry’. And this might seem an innocent habit but for the fact that tied up in the word is some tacit assumption of responsibility (whether guilt-driven or otherwise) for the situation about which we are saying ‘sorry’.

We use ‘sorry’ to:

  • express sympathy for something that happened to someone else, at another time, in another place (ooh sorry about that)
  • calm frayed nerves in a tense or stressful situation, even if it was not of our making
  • soften what we are going to say next when we disagree, or ask forgiveness, as if the truth coming out of our mouths must be sugar-coated for the receiving to hear it, or we are not allowed to ask for something we have every right to (I’m sorry but…)
  • to signal an interruption (instead of saying excuse me we say sorry)

An example: a friend invited me back to his place for a glass of wine the other day after we had walked the dog in the forest. I asked at least twice if this was going to work because it would involve my (rather energetic, rambunctuous) dog coming into his house, and potentially upsetting his cat. I was assured that it was not a problem, the cat would be ok, the dog was welcome.

After a pleasant evening of pizza, wine and chatting, I bundled the hound into the car and drove home. I messaged to say ‘thank you for a lovely evening’, and the response message said that “the cat is terrified” (clearly at the smell of a strange hunting dog in its homespace).

My instinct was to say “oh I’m sorry”… as if this was somehow my fault. It was my dog after all. Now be honest, girls… would you also have felt guilty? I did. I like cats: I don’t like the idea of a little critter being afraid. But it wasn’t my fault. I asked and checked (twice) and was assured it was ok: if anyone is responsible for the cat’s distress, it’s my friend who made the decision. So why do I feel guilty and responsible?

I noticed this urge to say “I’m sorry”, to assume responsibility for what had happened. I had to fight it… so instinctive, so habitual. And I realised how much responsibility I have been assuming, my entire life, for other people’s decisions and their consequences. There are times, too, I think that my assuming responsibility for other people’s decisions has also led to my expecting them to take responsibility for mine. Like I want someone to help me carry the weight of my mistakes. What a mess.

‘Sorry’ to buffer problematic gender relations

The use of the word ‘sorry’¬† is particularly marked in conversations¬†between men and women. The women are saying ‘sorry’ in the ways described above, the men hardly ever do. What are we signalling to menfolk, when we take this disproportionate responsibility for decisions, sweep up the mess behind them, whether as their partners, their mothers, their daughters (yes… I often cleaned up the detritus of my father’s decisions in the form of my mother’s emotional fallout. “I’m sorry Dad, but I don’t think Mum’s ok with that”).

Another example: a friend was staying with me from out of town for a little while to do some work. She was carless and not too flush, so ubering everywhere was not ideal. Her partner was struggling to fetch her due to his car being damaged by his (rather inconsiderate) younger brother who had not gotten his ass in gear to fix the damage and restore the vehicle to use, inconveniencing everyone in the family who needed the wheels. On her last day with me, my friend and I are sitting in my home trying to convey to two men who are completely unaware of the consequences of their actions that we now can’t do what we needed to do that day (including an important doctor’s appointment) because they haven’t organised themselves. I resisted, furiously, the urge to just say “I’ll take you”, to halt my plans and fix the situation… women once again dropping their priorities and going out of their way to make shit work around disorganised men.

We end up playing broken telephone: “where are you?”… “what time will the car be fixed?”… “please can you liaise with your brother about collecting the car?”… messages go unanswered, undelivered. Eventually I just called up my friend’s partner (interrupting his meeting, which she was loathe to do, understandably) to say “listen: we’re sitting here unable to do what we need to do because you guys have not gotten yourselves organised”. Now my friend’s partner (who is also dear to me) is a nice guy, considerate, kind and generally extremely helpful. He just didn’t know what effects his actions were having, that here we were feeling like we now had to manage his brother because he was in a meeting and de facto ‘uninterruptable’. He was just going on with his day, as he had planned it, not thinking about how that day needed to synchronise with the day of others. Once he realised, he sprung to action to sort the issue out.

This is an important point: I don’t think men don’t tailor their actions to accommodate others deliberately. It’s just that the women around them have been accommodating, adapting, compensating and adjusting for their entire lives, allowing them to continue on oblivious, and we don’t challenge them. We don’t say “no, that’s not ok. That might be what you want, but I want X and we need to find a compromise”. Or “thanks for communicating your plans, here are mine and we have a clash at point Y” and then expect mutual reciprocity in resolving the issue. Rather we say ‘sorry’, capitulate and then mold and adjust ourselves around the worlds of the men in our lives, taking on their shape like water in a vessel, and then feeling completely lost when the cup disappears and we are left spilt out on the floor, wondering what our own form was before we took on theirs.

Resolution: I’m only saying sorry when I’m genuinely remorseful about something I could’ve done better

If I need to get past you because you are blocking the aisle/passage oblivious of other people… I will say “excuse me, please move”.

If something unpleasant has happened in your life for which I hold no responsibility, I will say “that’s awful, I wish that hadn’t happened”. Or “wow, I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now. Let me know if I can make you feel a bit better somehow” (if I wish to help).

If I’m going to say something I think you won’t like, I will not preface it with “I’m sorry, but…”. It will be “thanks for letting me know, but that’s not going to work” or “I would rather we…”

If I’ve fucked up, done something inconsiderate, unkind, selfish. Then I will say “I’m sorry”. How many times will depend on the severity of the sin.

And of course, this is not going to be easy. Old habits die hard. But now you know when I say ‘sorry’, I mean it. Sincerely. I know for a fact some people will not like it. Women who are not constantly apologising come across as hard, with rough edges, not soft like we are supposed to be. “Tough”. “Icy”. Whatever. Not my monkeys, not my circus. I’ll take responsibility for what I have done, and not what you’ve done. And I’ll expect you to do the same.

I am tired of apologising for expecting respect. Or just being.¬† You’ll have to get used to it, but I’m not sorry. Sorry for what?

(This was also prompted by how remarkable MaWinnie was. “I am not sorry. I will never be sorry.” Unyanisile Madikizela.)