21 June 2020
A lack of parents’ militancy when obstacles emerged with the opening of schools was disturbing
Somewhere between 2001 and 2003, in my capacity as deputy minister of education, I visited a primary school in Wattville, East Rand, which consisted entirely of prefab materials. The principal’s office was in a discarded metal container which was extremely hot in summer and the opposite in
The school was in a fenced overgrown piece of land with the tall grass almost hiding it. The overcrowding in the classes was shocking, up to 75 children in a classroom. The desks were lined up right up to the black board, with very little room for the teacher at the front.
At a hastily organised assembly in the dusty grounds, I addressed the learners with a heavy heart. When I finished, a little girl raised her hand, shuffled two steps forward and asked: “Sir, is it right that we should be 75 in a classroom?”
To this day, the haunting words of that little girl have never left me. There we were, black men in suits and ties, travelling in shiny cars when our children learn in atrociously overcrowded prefab classrooms. It was shameful. Where is our responsibility, honour and dignity?
“No my child, it is not right. We should correct that,” I responded.
More than 20 years later we, black men and women in costumes, suits and ties, are strutting around in our shiny cars while black school children in the townships and villages cannot return to school for lack of sanitation, running water and enough classrooms to allow for social distancing
With the help of the late Shamba Moodley, a businessman in Benoni, a group of business people – an architect and an engineer – were mobilised and we visited the school again.
With cheque books on the ready, the group pledged to build the school. But a district official who was in attendance vetoed the effort, claiming that the building of that school was way down in the district’s priority.
Therefore it could not be built before the others that were higher up on the
priority list. This despite the fact that it was private money that was to be used in the construction of that school. So, the black men in suits and shiny cars left, leaving the little ones to continue learning in their miserable conditions.
The district official, most probably at the behest of the MEC of education, was able to veto the efforts of a national deputy minister. This extraordinary situation was made possible by two
factors, namely, the fact that the mandate to build schools and the funds thereof lie with provincial departments, not national.
The other is the frequent little power games that take place between provinces and the national spheres. Here, it was really a dramatic and mean demonstration of this dynamic.
This episode comes to mind as one watches the minister of basic education battling all and sundry about the preparedness of schools to reopen
after the COVID-19-mandated closure.
Most probably, in the vast majority of cases, she depends on the information given to her by her provincial colleagues for the decisions taken. And she has
neither the mandate nor the budget to prepare the schools for resumption.
More than 20 years later we, black men and women in costumes, suits and ties, are strutting around in our shiny cars while children in the townships and
villages cannot return to school for lack of sanitation, running water and enough classrooms to allow for social distancing.
In the 26 years of democracy, what did these children drink and what did they do in respect of sanitation? Human dignity is indivisible. Do we think we could have any dignity in our shiny cars and suits when our children have none?
During the level five and four of the lockdown, children in the suburbs and private schools continued with learning through technology while their counterparts in the townships and villages played in the dusty streets. We in our suits were aware of this.
But the more disturbing fact is the lack of militancy on the part of parents in the townships and villages when difficulties emerged with the opening of schools. Instead of standing up for their children and demanding that their schools open, they were mostly silent.
A few demanded that their schools should remain closed until the department fulfilled all the COVID-19 requirements. It sounded as if most have outsourced the educational interests of their children to the state.
If we had not outsourced the educational needs of our children to the department, we would have seen communities up in arms, demanding that their schools be opened.
We would have seen communities participating in the cleaning of schools, protecting their schools against the demented thugs who break into schools to steal teaching materials or simply
We would have seen communities giving the department an earful if the necessary water, sanitisers and other necessities were not delivered on time.
This they would do because the children do not belong to the state, but to us as communities. And children are perishable. They grow all the time and they need schools to develop properly and build a future for themselves, their families and society.
Health scientists tell us that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time, perhaps up to two years. What would be happening to the children and their educational needs? Can we imagine the chaos that would result if the 2020 academic year is lost? Are we ready to delay the enrollment of 2021 grade R children by a year?
We should educate ourselves as much as possible on how to continue with life under the threat of COVID-19. To that end, we should train our children,
possibly with the assistance of the Health Department, how to protect themselves effectively against the Coronavirus.
Our kids are smarter than we think. Once that is done, they are likely to be the ones sensitising us about COVID-19 in our homes.
Education is the most potent weapon in our arsenal for the fight against
poverty, inequality and unemployment. You can’t seriously talk about the need to end poverty in South Africa without giving priority to the education of the children of the poor.
For this reason, the poor communities in the townships and villages must insist on the education of their children. They should not outsource the educational interests of their children to the state.
- Mangena is a former minister of science and technology, and ex-president of the Azanian People’s Organisation.