Government could no longer deny there was a crisis in education when it only worked for a small percentage of middle-class children, leading academic Jonathan Jansen said in Cape Town on Tuesday night.
Speaking at the fifth memorial Imam Abdullah Haron lecture in Salt River, Jansen called on every sector of society, especially the faith based community, to demand that government declare a crisis in education.
"Why should we tolerate this?" he asked, referring to the gap between the schools of the privileged and the poor which remained constant despite many political and policy interventions.
Jansen said privileged schools remained stable, with no interruptions to teaching and learning, while the same could not be said for poorer schools.
"The schools of the poor are routinely disrupted or trashed by adults, by unions, activists, gangsters without any effective intervention that delivers stable schools with predictable timetables," he said.
"I used to be able to make that trip fairly easily from a very expensive school in Newlands or Claremont to a very poor school in Manenberg or Khayelitsha but no longer can make that trip without feeling emotionally distressed."
Jansen took aim at President Jacob Zuma, his cabinet and officials, suggesting the education problems would never be reversed until citizens demanded accountability from a seemingly uncaring government.
"The defensive argument that Rome was not built in a day, but the Nkandla homestead apparently can be, suggests to ordinary people a massive fraud estimated in the Nkandla case of more than R200-million of taxpayers money."
He went on to say those entrusted with fundamentally altering the education of the poor sent their children to the best private and public schools and would remain detached from the dysfunction and poverty of the education system which the majority of the country's learners remained stuck in.
"Show me one minister who does not place their child or grandchild in a high quality pre-school, show me one top government official which places their child in a historically black university."
Jansen described the situation as unfair as those in power did not feel the effects of, among others, unions disrupting schools or children not having textbooks.
"I do not believe that from the political to the professional crisis that there is enough of a felt sense of the miscarriage of justice with respect to the education of the poor..."
Jansen said there was nothing wrong with the country's children, but it was adults who were "messing them up".
He referred to the academic standards for passing in South Africa and insisted government, parents, teachers and society in general should stop engaging in and encouraging self-deception.
"We allow children to pass with ridiculous results and lie to them when we say to them that these sub-standard marks can get them into a job or into post-school training," said Jansen.
Jansen said this was the reason respectable universities devise their own additional tests and set admissions standards so high.
He said this was not done to exclude people but an attempt at not wanting the system failing students again.
"They (universities) don't want to become part of this determination by the authorities to spread the virus of mediocrity from schools into higher education."
He said parents had to demand improved quality education for their children and there were various options open to them to hold government accountable if it failed in this regard.
The options included support for legislation that would set minimum standards for education delivery in especially poorer schools.
These minimum standards should include that every child must have a book, qualifying teachers and basic predictable education.
"When government fails to meet what is legally defined standards, and here I support Equal Education, that we impose financial sanctions on the department of basic education and take that money back to the schools."
Jansen warned that it would be dangerous for people to think that government alone should be held accountable for education.
"What about our accountability as parents, especially in the poorer schools?
"Where are the parents when schools allow learners to leave early or when teachers do not teach, or when homework is not assigned or when test results show that children are not learning?"
The professor also blamed the crisis on teachers who in many cases at poorer schools have abandoned children.
"I've got bad news for you that for the next 10 to 20 years nothing is going to change at a systemic level.
"We are going to need what a wonderful book calls a moral underground, an army of volunteers."