Incarcerated for 13 years in the notorious Robben Island prison, Dr Sedick Isaacs was one of the intellectual powerhouses of the fight against apartheid. His fellow inmates included Nelson Mandela, and the current South African President Jacob Zuma, who he taught. October marks the first anniversary of his death, and in this hitherto unpublished interview conducted at his home in Cape Town – probably the last he gave before he died – Mushtak Parker reveals the growing disappointment and dissatisfaction of the former cadre and revolutionary, with the new South Africa.
For a mathematician, educationalist, epidemiologist and information scientist specialising in medical informatics, and a political and social activist to boot, Sedick Isaacs cuts a very private and reserved figure.
A naturally quiet and unassuming individual, Dr Isaacs was the epitome of the proverbial unsung hero. Typically, his memoirs, titled “Surviving the Apartheid Prison”, were published by himself in 2010, away from the glare of the usual publisher suspects.
In his case, his actions also spoke louder than his words. As a young activist he was determined to campaign for justice in South Africa by playing his part in overthrowing the apartheid regime. It was while a mathematics and physics teacher at Trafalgar High School that the 23-year-old Isaacs was sentenced in 1964 to a 12-year prison sentence on Robben Island, after being found guilty of sabotage.
His sentence was increased in 1969 for operating a pirate radio, which helped keep him and his fellow prisoners informed about world events, and for making a master key, which he secretly used to open jail cells on the island. On Robben Island, Dr Isaacs played a crucial role in educating fellow prisoners and also organising sporting activities as a way of keeping up their morale amid brutal repression by sadistic warders. Together with fellow inmates Marcus Solomon, Mark Shinners and Lizo Sitoto, he was instrumental in forming the Makana Football Association, the only non-national association recognised by FIFA, when it was granted honorary membership in 2010 – a story that was later made into a movie, “More Than Just a Game”.
Even in his retirement, he could not stop himself getting involved – this time in the education and social affairs of the communities around Cape Town. He volunteered, for instance, to teach mathematics to primary, secondary and university students in many areas including at the Khayelitsha College in a sprawling shantytown in the Cape Flats in the Western Cape; and of course at the University of Cape Town, his alma mater.
Sedick, who was a Cape Malay Muslim, and myself go back several decades. Our families were neighbours in Leeuwen Street in Cape Town’s Cape Malay Quarters. Although there was almost a generation between us, I remember him tutoring my siblings and me in mathematics when we were at secondary and primary schools respectively. And what about his illustrious former Robben Island inmate student, Jacob Zuma, whom he taught, among other things, mathematics and English; is he happy with how he has turned out as the South African President? “He is my friend and also the President of South Africa. I couldn’t possibly comment on that,” he retorted diplomatically during our interview.
But on the wider issues facing the Beloved Country, Sedick was less coy and exuded a disaffection, which has become so prevalent amongst South Africans of all backgrounds, including supporters of the ANC.
He rued the fact that economic inequality had deepened since the ANC came to power almost 20 years ago. This inequality is driven by the strong element of corporatism within the South African economy.
“I call it a corporatocracy, which is prevalent all over the world. South African corporates learnt this from counterparts abroad in order to gain more control. In South Africa today, I would say there may be political equality but not much economic equality. The economic inequality has been more entrenched over the last decade or two. Which means the corporates are gaining more and more control of the government’s thinking,” he explained. But isn’t this the ultimate irony, in that this was what he and his colleagues on Robben Island fought against?
“Yes, it is one of the huge disappointments. Someone wrote a book recently, entitled: ‘Freedom Next Time”. Are we looking for Freedom Next Time? There are more demonstrations at the municipal level in South Africa today than there were during the apartheid era. I think South Africans are a bit too forgiving. This idea of forgiveness has now even permeated into frauds by political party members,” he explained.
The scandal surrounding South Africa’s controversial recent arms deals is another case in point. He blames the government for allowing “the West to entrap SA economically”. The country, he objected, does not need arms, yet it ordered sophisticated jet fighters and frigates, which are not being used.
“I am told the frigates supplied by the Germans are just rusting somewhere. They are not even operational. What is even more distressing is that when Tony Blair came here with the Queen a couple of years ago, he promised an increase in development assistance should we buy British arms. He promised to build a power station. We paid three times the price for the same arms that were obtainable from Italy. None of the promises have actually materialised,” he maintained.
What was puzzling to him is how “streetwise revolutionaries” who fought in the streets of Cape Town and various other South African cities against the apartheid government, and who carried banners with slogans such as “Poverty Eradication”, “Freedom for the People”, “The Freedom Charter”, were now getting entrapped into buying these things.
“I can’t understand how that occurred,” he stressed. “I think it is to do with (ANC) party development. In the West, parties are funded by all sorts of political donations. South African parties are following this. A recent survey on confidence in governments showed that in South Africa this is still very high compared to that in the UK, US, and the EU. In South Africa this is due to that forgiveness I mentioned earlier.”
The gap between the rich and the poor is widening in South Africa as elsewhere. Despite the emergence of a black middle class, the economic wealth is still predominantly white-owned. True, the number of black millionaires has increased, which some people say is testimony to growing economic freedom. This, contended Sedick Isaacs, is not true. “Many of them were manufactured by the policies of the government, or brought in as fronts to South African businesses. In fact, social and economic apartheid has become more entrenched. Look at the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Most South Africans could not afford the tickets, even at R400.”
The ANC government is in danger of compromising its revolutionary spirit, not only in its rush to showcase trophy events but, perhaps more importantly, the way it has caved in to the World Bank and IMF advice that the South African government should cut back on public expenditure, public employees and subsidies, supposedly to cut back costs.
For many, added Dr Isaacs, the World Bank and IMF have been perceived as American institutions, and lots of their projects in Africa were actually failures.
Has the ANC still got a problem in transforming itself from a liberation movement into a government? To him, much of the problem lay in the ANC’s attraction to its liberation history, as opposed to its government history. “They [the ANC government] exploit that as much as they can. Nelson Mandela has a history of revolution. When he was released they wheeled him out, as sick as he was, and displayed him on platforms, again to use their liberation history rather than their governing history. I think this is still a huge problem for the ANC,” he added.
He agreed that there is a widening disconnect between the ANC government and realpolitik in South Africa. This is because of the in-fighting between various factions within the ANC. Even ANC supporters agree that what is missing from South African politics is a strong opposition party that can give an alternative view to that of the ANC. “In a democracy the opposition is just as important as the elected government. Here in South Africa we virtually have a one-party state,” he added.
Post-apartheid South Africa is seen as an outstanding success story for “Truth and Reconciliation”. While Dr Isaacs agreed that reconciliation has been a remarkable success, he rued the lack of integration between the various races and ethnic groups, although the idea of the Rainbow Nation is gaining momentum. The medium-term challenges for the Beloved Country are manifold. But Dr Isaacs identified a few pressing ones. Education is the overriding priority, which would give rise to black middle-class professionals, who would be more critical of their governments and take banks and corporates to task if warranted.
But perhaps reflecting his own experience, he would remind ordinary South Africans that democracy is not only about electing governments but also about citizens acting as democrats by participating in the political process.
This is to act as a check and balance not only against government excesses but also the pervasive power and control of the corporates. In the area of land grabs, for instance, he noticed that in the first ten years of the post-apartheid ANC government, there were more mass removals, largely from farms and rural areas, than under the last ten years of apartheid rule. This was done, according to Dr Isaacs, under corporate pressure.
In the last decade or so Dr Isaacs devoted much of his time to education, especially in his capacity as a volunteer mathematics teacher serving the spectrum from primary, to secondary and university levels. His experience, however, was far from ideal as he witnessed, to his chagrin and shock, the steady decline in the quality, especially of mathematics and the sciences, at almost all the various educational levels.
The statistics bore witness to this sorry state of affairs, which he even brought up with successive education ministers, but seemingly with little success and impact. South Africa, in fact, is at the lowest end of the annual international league tables for mathematical skills and ability in schools. This is a worrying trend because mathematics “is the basis of many sciences. Mathematical thinking is necessary for engineering and that type of development.”
The reasons are manifold. Lack of resources is one. But according to Sedick Isaacs, another reason may be the “numbers system in African languages”, which, if looked at in detail, pushes children into an unhelpful type of mindset.
The South African outcome-based education system (OBE) is also causing a huge problem. The government, according to Dr Isaacs, realised that after all these years of not admitting it, the OBE system was not fit for purpose.
“I was teaching at the University of Cape Town, when the first OBE students arrived. I noticed a distinct difference between the OBE class and the previous class a year before, made up of non-OBE students. There was a distinct drop in mathematical skills and ability,” he observed.
“I did some OBE teaching. You take piles of books home and work late at night. The OBE system is heavily administration based, which puts off many teachers. In the 1990s, many teachers were also retrenched, who subsequently got jobs in industry and other sectors. In the apartheid years the best minds went into teaching because there was nothing much else to do. Today in the post-apartheid era and its openness, not the best minds went into teaching. With the result, education faculties have great difficulty recruiting people to become teachers,” he added.
Not surprisingly, several educationalists believed the short-to-medium-term outlook for South African state education is indeed bleak. The inconsistency of education policy, and the use of frontline inspectors who are not qualified, are two key problems.
“I had first-hand experience of these inspectors – I think they call them subject advisers – who are totally incompetent. They don’t have many skills in advising, both in the subject and in teaching skills. They hardly know the difference between teaching and coaching,” he revealed.
The implications are that South Africa is fast developing a two-tier educational system – a first-class private system and a mediocre state system. The same is prevalent in healthcare, which critics such as Dr Isaacs believe would merely serve to exacerbate inequalities in society.
The problem of the ANC is cadre deployment. If you are a member of the ANC you will be chosen for this or that position. But the ANC is now split into different factions. With a new faction comes new administrative people and new management. That leads to inconsistency of policy. Not surprisingly, Dr Isaacs strongly believed in the idea of a politically neutral civil service, which would lead to more policy consistency and the impartial management of departments. Even in death, the words and thoughts of Dr Isaacs still resonate strongly.