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Vashthi Nepaul Headshot

South Africa's Missing Genius Children

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This is the amended text of a speech for the United Nations My World Campaign hosted by Junior Chamber International at Constitution Hill last week.

Today I want to talk about "a good education," one of the priority areas for the United Nations My World Global Survey. Not generally, like the other speakers, but about a specific segment of education which I believe is being overlooked to our detriment.

When I discuss this with children, I ask them to imagine that they are an amazingly good singer or football player. Just born innately talented from a young age in something they love doing. Now imagine they go to a school with no music lessons or no sports field. And everyone tells them that they must wait until they are an adult for their chance to shine.

Most children, when faced with this scenario, declare it unfair. They believe that schools should give everyone a chance. And in South Africa, where education is a right, the government has responded. In 1996, we signed special education needs into law. If you have a physical disability, intellectual disability, a learning disability or a psychological condition which means that you learn differently than the mainstream, the education system is obliged to provide for you.

But there's one group not catered for by our inclusiveness policy: gifted children. This is despite the fact that studies prove a gifted child from a low income home is more likely to drop out of school than an average learner from a low income home. The education system is built to cater for the middle and below.

A gifted child is just the same as that amazingly talented young singer or football player; they are years advanced for their age - maybe in math or art, or languages or music, in memory or spatial ability. The most conservative estimates put these children at two percent of the youth population, the most generous at 10 percent. In South Africa, that means that there are between 400,000 and 2 million out there.

Where are they?

Can you remember meeting one? Or hearing about any of our genius children on television or radio? Reading about them in the newspaper? No? Me neither.

It worries me that these children are missing. Before we even start looking at the solutions to improve their lot in life, we have to open our eyes to the possibility that they exist and we have to find them.

Over 20 million of our population is 19 years old and under. In developing nations, a large youth population can either be a blessing or a curse. Other countries, like India and Brazil, Singapore and Hong Kong, are investing in their gifted youth as a kind of renewable resource, because the impact of one empowered genius in their field can be huge. They are searching their countries and finding generals, ministers, nuclear scientists from this group - sometimes in extremely poor homes. This is a competitive advantage we could have if we would we just choose to be ambitious about our future.

I concede that government's Department of Basic Education is probably not yet in a place where it can roll out national programs to assist these children. It is, however, in a place where it can commission research, plan programs and run pilot projects. It can get ready to help the next generation. There are also efforts that can be made by ordinary South Africans. Most importantly, it's worth thinking and talking about.