We find ourselves on the verge, once again, of global shifts such as migration and severe climate change among many other challenges forged as result of industrial development through its pollution of our environment, and its role in displacing and exploiting peoples, particularly the working classes in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Brian Kamanzi says any move towards environmental justice needs to be underpinned by a socially conscious education system.
World leaders and global industries are struggling to contain the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Meanwhile, communities of ordinary working people and their children continue to bear the brunt of the negative impact of older technologies. Yet it is our overburdened public education system that carries the potential to foster creative, practical thinking on the development of renewable energy technologies that could promise a more sustainable and self-reliant future.
I have been passionate about the sciences for as long as I remember. With encouragement from my parents and teachers, I went on to further my education through the electrical engineering department at the University of Cape Town. What I discovered there and beyond changed my perspectives on the role of science and technology in society, on the central position of education institutions such as schools, and on the ability of young people themselves to agitate for learning and teaching spaces that respond to our contexts and our basic needs as a collective. Moreover, I recognised the importance of students, teachers and community leaders in intervening together and not simply waiting for progress to filter down from government, private businesses or well-meaning NGOs. While all of these parties may form crucial parts of the solution, the people who experience the problems themselves who must remain at the heart of the process of building a more secure future.
In the post-1994 era, social sciences such as history education have declined in popularity among high school students, to the extent that they is no longer offered up to matric level at many schools. In a number of school environments, encouraged by the national government, a strong focus on STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) subjects are encouraged as a pathway to a better life with more secure job prospects. The danger of this approach is that instead of creating space for young people to become aware and critical of their social context and history, and to use that information to enhance interest in and practical enquiry into the sciences, young people are sold a one dimensional story that offers vague references to technology and entrepreneurship as the solution to all of our problems.
This leads to the question: how can we use the opportunities that introduce education around the use of renewable technologies to encourage students to engage with social contexts and local histories, embed the problems to be solved in their social context, and begin to think of ways to expand the curriculum and the classroom itself as a site of community learning and problem solving?
Among the many hard truths behind our extensive public and private schooling system lie the physical inequalities in the very infrastructure available in different schools. In many townships and rural areas, basic sanitation and roofing for classrooms and halls are central issues. So when we discuss the positive opportunities for introducing practical and educational aspects of renewable energy technology, we must acknowledge that the applications will vary considerably across the vastly unequal terrain of South Africa.
With unemployment among those aged 15 to 34 in South Africa exceeding 54% in 2016, the need for practical post-school conversations grows more urgent by the day, as evidenced by the growing number of strikes in the tertiary education sector.
It is worrying that within school and, to some extent, mainstream university programmes, entrepreneurship is consistently promoted as the pathway to new jobs for young South Africans, despite the overwhelming imbalance in the distribution of wealth among the population.
It is problematic for young people to only conceive of our futures through the eyes of business and profits. We must also surely demand that, from the initial levels of schooling, we are exposed to different models, such as cooperatives and other localised schemes that empower us to resolve our own problems, while encouraging communalism and collective participation such that we begin to regain control of public land and institutions. More specifically, how can we start and support on-going efforts to teach young people that engineering and science are not simply pathways to high-paying jobs, but useful tools to practically build our communities? If we don’t who will?
If we look across the ocean to our brothers and sisters in Madagascar, we see programmes, not dissimilar to some of our own established by NGOs, to electrify rural schools through solar technologies. The programme, aided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), worked with numerous partners to electrify five rural schools in as many different regions of the country. This project used partnerships with researchers and employed local staff for the maintenance of solar equipment, which hopefully included practical upskilling among local workers.
As we begin to broaden the scope of what is possible as young people, we should encourage ourselves to investigate examples of similar systems that have been used in contexts like our own and the kind of partners that can be contacted to move projects from ideas to reality. Universities and technical colleges should not operate as factories for private multinational businesses but instead be able to answer the increasingly important questions of how to use knowledge to resolve social problems.
Age should not limit your desire or passion to transform your environment. Work with other students of different age groups, speak to teachers and elders, visit your local technical colleges and universities. All of these institutions are public and belong to you and your community. Engage with them on how to work together to build a sustainable, energy-conscious future bringing renewable energy out of the hands of the elite and into the classrooms, community clinics and homes that we share.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.