Dr Mamokgethi Setati, AMESA National President

Article published in City Press, 8 September 2002

I  often get asked about the purposes of doing mathematics. Why do mathematics when it is so difficult, so inaccessible and so unfriendly and uncool? Why do so many students hate and fail mathematics? Why do so many people feel comfortable with the fact that they cannot do mathematics or they were never good at mathematics?

It is a well-known fact that Mathematics has a widespread public image as being difficult, cold, abstract, theoretical, ultra-rational but important. It also has an image of being remote and inaccessible to all but a few super-intelligent human beings with mathematical minds. This is of course not true, but it is because of this image that many people feel it is acceptable to be unsuccessful in mathematics. Many South Africans operating at a high level of competency in numeracy, graphicacy and computeracy in their professional work still feel comfortable declaring their inability in mathematics. I often hear respected people in our society saying, "I am no good in mathematics, I never could do it at school." In contrast to the shame associated with illiteracy, inability in mathematics is almost a matter of pride amongst many educated people in South Africa. This attitude must change.

It is this attitude that makes many South African school children feel comfortable with not doing well in mathematics. After all, if your uncle who is running a successful business confesses with pride that he never passed any mathematics tests while at school, then what would make you think you can do it. But why does this attitude exist? I have never heard anyone proudly declaring his or her inability in any other subject in the way that people do with mathematics. Why is it the case with mathematics? This attitude contributes to mathematics being awarded a higher status than other subjects, thus giving mathematics symbolic power. Mathematics is a social good in South Africa, it is perceived to be a source of status and power. As a result of its status and power, mathematics is used as a critical filter controlling access to many areas of advanced study and better-paid and more fulfilling professional occupations. Mathematics is also the most important criterion for selection for employment. Any employer faced with a choice among 200 Grade 12 graduates to offer jobs will use mathematics as one of the criteria. The bottom line here is that, whether we like it or not, mathematics is a key to higher education and high paying jobs.

So, where do we start? What do we do? And how do we get our children interested in mathematics? I believe that the first step is to give a clear message to our children: "mathematics can be fun, is doable and you need it!" The Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (AMESA) will be spreading this message during the National Mathematics Week, which starts on the 9th to the 16th September 2002. This Mathematics week was declared by the South African National Committee for the International Mathematical Union (IMU). The main purpose is to highlight the beauty, utility and applicability of mathematics.

AMESA is a national professional association for mathematics educators from primary school to university level. All who have an interest in the teaching and leaning mathematics should belong to this dynamic association. It is the voice of mathematics education in South Africa representing the interests of the discipline and its members at provincial and national level. Our main aim as AMESA is to promote mathematics education and, in particular, to enhance the quality of the teaching and learning of mathematics in South Africa. While most our activities are aimed at mathematics educators, during the Mathematics Week we have planned learner activities to encourage mathematical activity in schools. The learner activities planned are not necessarily about competition but about participation. They are aimed at conceptual understanding of mathematics, application of knowledge in new situations, problem solving, mathematical reasoning, communication and general mathematical thinking. In our view, the Mathematics Week is an opportunity for teachers, learners and parents to come together to promote and enjoy mathematics. Our major learner activity during the Mathematics Week will be the AMESA Mathematics Challenge for Grades 4 to 7 learners. All schools are encouraged to participate.

For more information visit the AMESA Challenge website at Different regions have also planned activities for the Mathematics Week. For more information about what is planned for your region contact Noeline Tomsett at the AMESA office, Tel: (011) 4036977.

For more information on AMESA and its activities visit


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