South African corporates spent almost R8 billion on corporate social investments last year. This is up from R2 billion spent in 2003. Of this, 41% went to propping up South Africa's ailing education system. According to the chief operating officer of local NGO Relate Bracelets, Neil Robinson, while it is encouraging that South African corporates are willing to spend the money on education, very few of them know how to measure the impact their money is having in the long term.

So, has corporate CSI spend on education been effective? Not according to Robinson, who argues that the fact that more than half of the pupils who go to grade 1 never even make it to matric is proof that CSI spend has not made much of a dent in South Africa's education woes.

"It is difficult to measure the true efficacy of CSI spend on education unless proper metrics are put in place on a macro level," says Robinson. "One needs to track each component of any CSI project across a range of agreed measurables. Unfortunately, with most projects of this nature, vague qualitative measures are agreed on and then not properly monitored as the years go by.

"But, if we consider that more than 50% of grade l's drop out of school before reaching Matric, I would say that there has not been any real change as this is the number I believe should be of most concern," says Robinson.

"I know there are many good people and companies trying to do many things to assist, but the problem is enormous. It needs massive intervention from everyone. It is a national crisis. Why not shift the thinking from Nkandla to our national education system and treat it as a state of emergency because that is what it is."

According to Robinson, one way to ensure that corporate spend on education does make the real and sustainable difference that it is intended to, is to form an organised collective CSI effort from big corporates which tackles all the issues facing the education system - from investment in teachers and teacher training, to technology, to nurturing pupils in various pockets of learning.

"What I know as a concerned citizen is that on the whole these projects have not been sustainable as you just need to take a look at our matric pass rate, our maths ability, the state some of the schools are in, the pay teachers are getting and the drop-out percentage from grade 1 to 12.

"Those for me are the simplistic metrics. One simple question that I've always wondered about: If we are putting our country's future in the hands of thousands of teachers around the country, should we not invest properly in these teachers and not pay them a similar salary to that earned by workers who take stones out of the ground to enrich mining giants?"

Robinson is convinced that the only way for CSI to effectively address the many and varied challenges faced by education in South Africa, is to form an organised collective not dissimilar to the American Civil Rights Movement. "This movement needs to wake people up to the fact that we have the biggest crisis that this country has faced for decades on our hands.

"I believe that if you get education sorted in this country, you deal with the underlying cause to a lot of symptoms which are causing this country untold ills. There is no perfect society but education will go a long way to helping cure some of our biggest issues as a country."

A collective of this nature will be able to overcome many of the obstacles, like the high cost of telecommunications and data, which is, according to him, a major hurdle to overcome before e-learning can become a practical solution in South African education.

"We have some of the highest telecommunications costs in the world. While I know that e-learning is the future, there is no way to really address these problems if we do not have this kind of collective outside of government, that address these issues.

"Corporates are doing what they can and that is fantastic, but it will only get us so far. I think we need a groundswell of outraged, clever and respected people like Clem Sunter, Professor Jonathan Jansen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mamphela Ramphele, Michael Jordaan, Reuel Khoza, Robbie Brozin from Nandos, Trevor Manuel, etc to form an 'education tribe or collective' that can act swiftly and decisively.

"Until there is massive intervention things will carry on the way they are or get worse and worse. Clem Sunter has always recommended an economic Codesa - I think SA needs an education Codesa."  

This article was first published on 1 October 2014 by Education Southern Africa, click here to read pdf version.