The soul of wit
23 October 2014 14:50 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

It’s not a democracy if our children aren’t equal

  • Pierre de Vos
As citizens of a free country, South Africans should rightly demand much from fellow citizens, from powerful private institutions, from big business and from government. It appears deceptively modest, but citizens have a right to demand (and deserve to demand) the supreme and most difficult thing: to have their inherent human dignity respected by all and protected and promoted by those chosen to do so. Judging by what I saw on a recent visit to rural schools in the Eastern Cape, this seemingly modest demand is not always being met.

This past week Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog has been much on my mind. In a volume of poetry published in 1995, Krog wrote about being a white Afrikaner woman, a member of the UDF, an ambivalent if loving wife, living in Kroonstad in the late nineteen eighties trying to make sense of the messed-up world in the dying days of Apartheid. In one poem she writes about a necessary visit to a filthy toilet while menstruating, with her handbag clenched between her teeth and her blood-red tampon (folded into bank deposit slips) clutched in her hand:

dinge natuurlik waaroor ‘n mens nooit ‘n gedig sou skryf nie/ dring in die nuwe territory poetic temas binne…./ pis ek rillend verstard effens hurkend/ tussen my bene deur/ in ‘n toiletbak tot in die helfte opgehoop/ met minstens vier verskillende kleure kak/ elke senupunt van weersin orent om mal te word/ as maar net ‘n enkele druppel op teen my sou spat.” (“Things of course about which one would never write a poem/ force their way into the territory of poetic themes …/I piss shuddering rigid half squatting/ between my legs/ into a toilet bowl heaped halfway up/ with at least four different colours of shit/ every nerve-ending of aversion alert to go mad/ if even a single drop would splash against me.”)

In this searing but ironic poem in which the poet recoils from the bodily excretion of others while herself excreting bodily fluids and contributing to the filth, Krog hints at the problematic nature of living even a relatively privileged life (whether you are a politician, a tenderpreneur, a businessman or somebody “who worked for” your money by being lucky enough to have rich parents) in a shockingly unequal society. There is always a danger that you will easily slide into self-congratulatory handwringing about the horror and injustice you find around you. You might also find solace in the angry and self-righteous condemnation of others who are not doing more to eradicate inequality. You can also easily become immobilised by a sense of hopelessness and futility in the nihilistic belief that change is no longer possible.

On a visit to several schools in rural Eastern Cape organised by Equal Education as part of a delegation led by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, we indeed saw much that would anger most sane people and could easily lead to a sense of despair. We saw 132 grade 9 learners crammed into one classroom at Ntaphane Senior Secondary School, hardly a textbook in sight. At Nyagilizwe Senior Secondary School, overflowing toilets with broken doors might have challenged even Krog’s abilities of description. At Sampson Senior Primary School in the Libode District, our little ones get taught in mud huts and do not have the “luxury” of toilet facilities at all (they have to go into the bushes to relieve themselves). At one school we were told that the school had to close for two days because SADTU, the teacher’s union, was conducting regional elections for office bearers (although the principle was too scared to be quoted on this), hinting at the sometime destructive role played by union leaders in this education crisis.

How learners and teachers manage this overcrowding, lack of facilities and often also lack of textbooks, is beyond me. Why this shocking, often racialised, inequality in education is allowed to continue and why our politicians are not treating this as a national crisis is beyond my comprehension. Compare the situation in many of these schools to the suburban schools in and around Cape Town, and the human cost of inequality in South Africa hits home.

But not all is gloom and doom. Some teachers and principals soldier on and try to make a difference, despite the conditions. I saw a feisty school principal overseeing an overcrowded school with magisterial self-discipline and belief in the children. I saw another teacher conducting the school choir that won the national championship last year. Everywhere we went we saw evidence of poor communities scraping together funds to build extra classrooms and to improve the school facilities without any help from the Department. These are not people who, in the imagination of some big city grouches, are lazy leeches waiting for government handouts.

What is to be done? What immediate steps can be taken to begin the process that would give all learners – regardless of race and social and economic background – a fighting chance to flourish and to reach their full potential as a human being? (Surely this is what our Constitution promises?) There is no silver bullet that will fix our education system. I am skeptical about populist gestures (like declaring teaching an essential service or re-introducing inspectors), because, on their own, these measures won’t make much of a difference. (And we must remember that teachers enjoy the same human rights guaranteed for everyone else in the Constitution.)

But here are some humble suggestions for turning the ship around and beginning to address the national emergency that is our unequal education system.

Section 5A of the South African Schools Act empowers the Minister of Basic Education to promulgate Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. Promulgating such norms and standards would constitute an important first step at addressing the basic infrastructure problems in education because it would set a minimum benchmark and would provide a tool that communities, principals and NGOs could use to hold the Education Department and its often lethargic and bungling officials accountable. Everywhere I saw evidence that communities are ready to play their role, but the Minister has so far been too scared or too callous to provide these communities with an important empowering tool to hold officials to account.

The Minister – in terms of an out of court settlement with Equal Education – has promised to promulgate such norms and standards, but the draft norms and standards issued for comment are so laughably vague that they would not serve any accountability function at all. The draft states that in order to create even the basic minimum standards in which children could learn with a semblance of dignity, these goals had to be realised “progressively” (no respect for the dignity of learners in the meantime) and that MECs for education had to develop plans to provide all schools in each province with the basic minimum facilities. (Remember these basic facilities do not include libraries and laboratories found in most former model C schools – but merely working toilets, manageable class sizes, brick and mortar structures.)

But on Friday, Eldred Fray, an official of the Eastern Cape Department responsible for infrastructure development in the province for the past 19 years, told us that the Department had no medium- or long-term plan for addressing infrastructure problems. Where are the excel spreadsheets, the maps, the statistics, the set of principles according to which priorities would be determined? Why are officials and politicians not having sleepless nights about the fact that even 19 years after the advent of democracy, we are perpetuating instead of eradicating inequalities in our education system?

Are we going to have to wait another 19 years before the Eastern Cape MEC finalises a medium- and long-term plan to address infrastructure deficiencies in schools across the province? If these draft norms and standards are adopted, this seems like a likely scenario. Unless the minimum norms and standards set clear and precise targets and deadlines for meeting those targets, there is no hope that the officials tasked with implementing the plan will do their jobs properly or that they will be held accountable if they don’t. After all, in 2010 National Treasury allocated almost R7 billion for the eradication of mud schools, but most of that money was never spent and was returned to Treasury or rolled over to future years.

Improving infrastructure in schools to a level that would at least give children a fighting chance to learn - in an environment befitting a human being, with inherent human dignity - is a first step to deal with the education crisis. But it won’t solve the problem. A second step would be to get officials to do their jobs and to hold them accountable if they do not. Everywhere we went we were told that managers from the Department were inaccessible or missing in action. Officials from District Offices fail to answer correspondence, seldom visit schools (in one school we were told the last time an official visited was 1991) and seldom inform their superiors of problems in schools in their jurisdictions in order to avoid “trouble” and to make sure that they do not make more work for themselves. How many officials have been fired for not doing the job South Africans pay them to do?

Many teachers are demoralised, not only because of the appalling conditions and large classes, but also because some of their fellow teachers shirk their duties. Almost 40,000 teachers are absent from school every day, and absenteeism falls disproportionately on Mondays and Fridays. Surely the system can only work if teachers who are serial absconders are held to account? Yet teachers’ unions often protect such teachers instead of doing what is in the interest of the learners, and that is why political will is needed to challenge the faction inside the union leadership who places the narrow interest of its members above the interest of society.

These proposals would only constitute modest first steps to begin to turn the ship around. But even such modest steps will not be taken unless there is political will right from the top. We need a president who drops in unannounced at District Offices across the country and demands accountability for officials. We need a Minister who is prepared to set minimum norms and standards and to hold officials accountable if they do not meet these. This is a burning issue of transformation. A government who purports to have as its raison d’être the eradication of inequality and the transformation of society has no excuse not to show the political will to deal with the crisis. (The DA in the Western Cape is another matter.) If we want to begin to address educational inequality, our politicians must stop playing politics with education and must be honest and brave enough to stick their necks out and to demand accountability from officials and, yes, also from those teachers who are not doing their jobs.

As citizens of a free country, this, surely, is the least that we can demand? It is only when ordinary voters in their millions make their voices heard and tell the responsible politicians that we will only lend our vote to their political party (whether ANC nationally or DA in the Western Cape) if they show that they will take action and will hold those officials accountable whose inaction is robbing many of our children of their future. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
Pierre de vos

Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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