Maverick Citizen: Eastern Cape

Learners get ‘cold reception’ after 260km walk for better education

By Estelle Ellis 11 December 2019
Caption
Some of the children during their walk to Bhisho. (Photo: John Lombardo)

‘We had to tell the kids at the end of the walk that there will likely be no positive changes in the new year,’ said the organiser of the walk, John Lombardo.

After walking 260km from Port Elizabeth to Bhisho to protest against low-quality teaching in township schools, teachers and 14 schoolchildren representing 14 no-fee schools in Nelson Mandela Bay say they feel their complaints were not heard – and that instead of change there will be reprisal for what they have done when schools resume in 2020.

The organiser of the walk and director of  New York-based ArtWorks for Youth, John Lombardo, said they were accused of lying by the Eastern Cape education department.

“You can Google any of the demands the children presented to the department and you will find dozens of news stories written about it. I don’t know how they can say that it is not the truth.”

He said the children were made to wait for two hours by the department, and then only four of them were allowed to speak.

The children also wrote a series of essays detailing the abuse, absence of teachers, dirty toilets and lack of handbooks they were struggling with in their schools.

“All they had to do was listen,” Lombardo remarked about the officials’ conduct.

“We had to tell the kids at the end of the walk that there will likely be no positive changes in the new year,” Lombardo said.

“The officials didn’t believe that our demands were real. They called us liars and asked: ‘How could anybody not have done anything about these complaints?’ They were upset about the media coverage and said we should have asked their permission to do the walk in the first place.

“The kids were very upset, but the fact that they wanted us to be quiet is proof that we are doing something right.”

Some of the demands presented to the Eastern Cape Department of Education were:

  • Teachers must come to class and teach every day;
  • If a teacher is absent a substitute must be found;
  • Teachers must respect learners;
  • All students must have textbooks; and
  • Corporal punishment must stop.

Lombardo has been running his ArtWorks for Youth programme in township schools in Nelson Mandela Bay for the past two decades. He has been actively involved in trying to improve the standard of education in these schools. A few years ago he staged a funeral for basic education as a protest against the low quality of teaching in township schools.

“I was told that our students’ list of demands, which highlight their issues, could not be believed and, if they were true, the local Department of Basic Education would have acted on them. I was further told that the demands cannot be true and there ought to be an investigation as to whether or not the children are being coerced and I had something against the department.

“I have tremendous respect for Malibongwe Mtima, the head of communications for the Eastern Cape DOE, who did his best to steer this meeting toward something positive.”

He added that he was impressed with the courage of the learners who undertook the walk.

“They bonded with one another, were kind and supportive, and worked themselves to the bone for a cause about which they are more than passionate.”

Eastern Cape education department spokesman Malibongwe Mtima said they were sympathetic to the children’s plight and very mindful that big moments in the history of South Africa had started with schoolchildren marching.

However, he said, “The issues they were raising must be addressed by the school principal or the school governing body.

“We will only intervene if no agreement can be reached. We appreciate that they came all the way to Bhisho, but they have to work with the district office.”

He added that they were, however, taking the learners’ complaints  “very seriously”.

“We want our schools to be functional,” he said. “We are trying to improve the trust in the district office. We must hold them to account. But we don’t want this to look like a witch hunt. We must follow due process. If learners and parents are not part of a decision they will always question it.”

He said the provincial MEC for Education, Fundile Gade, will visit the schools referred to in the complaints before the beginning of term in January. MC

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