COVID-19

‘Today, we are not shot at maybe, but our education is useless’

By Lutz Van Dijk 14 June 2020

Youth Day 2020 – how much is different this year while approaching the centre of the Covid-19 storm?

One of our young neighbours in Masiphumelele, a township community south of Cape Town, is Sipho*, 22. Since he passed matric in 2017, he has been unemployed and with no income. More than a month ago, he applied for the R350 Covid-19 grant and is certainly eligible. He has received a confirmation via a friend’s cellphone that he is registered, but no grant has come through. Sipho is hungry and angry.

“Hector Pieterson is one of us,” Sipho claims. “Today, we are not shot at maybe, but our education is useless. We must rise again against so many injustices.” 

Sipho did not take part in the latest national election. But he knows what happened on 16 June 1976 to Pieterson in Soweto. His younger brother, Tshepo, who is in Grade 7,  has just returned after lockdown to Ukhanyo Primary. He disagrees: “My teacher is a good person. I am happy to be back at school with my friends. And we get a meal every day.” Tshepo* is the same age as Pieterson was when he was murdered.

So far, healthcare-related workers on all levels – doctors, nurses, cleaners, meal providers and security – have been rightly named our frontline heroes and heroines in fighting Covid-19. Since the beginning of June, we have to add teachers and principals in the 25,000 schools in South Africa – of which 23,000 are public schools with more than 12 million learners. Around three million learners (those in Grades 7 and 12) have returned to their schools now.

It is public knowledge that the Western Cape has more than half of all registered Covid-19 infections in South Africa (37,500 out of 65,500 Covid-19 cases nationwide as of 13 June 2020). Supported by medical experts, the provincial MEC for Education, Debbie Schäfer, is adamant that there is no reason to postpone the gradual opening of schools. 

Infection rates have risen before and will continue to do so for a while in all parts of the country. Efforts were made to prepare schools: R280-million was spent, for example, on 2.4 million face masks and 7,000 digital thermometers. That in the first week, almost 100 teachers tested positive with Covid-19 and 16 schools had to be closed temporarily was a sign of the greater picture we have to adjust to for quite a time still to come.

Principal Mncedi Nelson Mafrika returned and rebuilt Masi High against all odds: The pass rate increased every year and was 66.3% in 2019. No match for neighbouring Fish Hoek High at 98.3%, but still a remarkable improvement. The 157 learners for Grade 12 have returned since early June 2020. But how to keep up with all subjects missed for almost three months – and now under the limitations of Covid-19 rules?

But as the Covid-19 crisis has shown again and again, the extreme differences between rich and poor in this country are equally painful in education: Schools with little or no resources have to stand up to many more serious challenges. In schools with more resources, parents can indeed often decide whether to send their children back to school or not, as homeschooling via Zoom and Skype are viable options. But what to do where there is not even enough food at home, let alone a laptop and internet connection? 

Twenty years ago, Ukhanyo Primary School was not more than one small brick building and a few containers as classrooms. Morning lessons were given to the young ones. In the afternoon, the same containers were packed with the older ones.

Then, after many protests and toyi-toying, a miracle happened: 2006, the new Masiphumelele High School was built and opened for the first 700 students. Today, Masi High caters for 1,200 students and has 34 teachers. The matric pass rate became better each year, but community riots against drug dealers in 2015 also affected Masi High: The pass rate dropped to 48%.

Principal Mncedi Nelson Mafrika returned and rebuilt Masi High against all odds: The pass rate increased every year and was 66.3% in 2019. No match for neighbouring Fish Hoek High at 98.3%, but still a remarkable improvement. The 157 learners for Grade 12 have returned since early June 2020. But how to keep up with all subjects missed for almost three months – and now under the limitations of Covid-19 rules?

Also at Ukhanyo Primary, a committed principal, Puthumile Michael Tyhali created, for 1,967 learners and 47 teachers, an environment where doors were opened to crucial partners like Masicorp and the MCC Masi 750 Sports Club, not only to improve learning, but also to ensure that there are solutions for the harsh realities at home – from the provision of uniforms to the crucial one meal a day. 

Deputy Principal Thozama Songwiqi said: “Our four Grade 7 classes with 272 learners and their four teachers are now divided into 15 groups to allow physical distancing. At the same time, 13 of our teachers are in isolation at home. These are huge challenges, even when teachers from other Grades fill in. Every morning, all learners and teachers have to be screened for their temperature, some are sent home with a report. And this is only one Grade so far.”

Nine years ago, Mbu Maloni, a Grade 11 student from Masi High wrote a book about his growing up in extreme poverty, partly as a street child. He was just 16 when he moved in at the HOKISA Children’s home. A few months later, his best friend Atie, 15, was murdered in a gang-related street fight. 

Maloni gave his book the title: Nobody will ever kill me (UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg 2011). Since then, all attempts to study or get professional training failed. Like Sipho, he applied many weeks ago for the R350 grant – and has heard nothing since. He still remembers his first day at school as the best day of his life.

Covid-19 has sharpened a number of unjust disparities. South Africa needs excellent – professional and motivated – doctors and teachers more than ever. DM

If you can – please support schools like Ukhanyo Primary (please contact Principal Tyhali: [email protected]) and Masi High (please contact School Secretary Mrs Nomonde Gaji: [email protected] ).

*Names have been changed.

Dr Lutz van Dijk is a Dutch-German writer, historian and human rights activist. He wasn’t allowed entry to South Africa until 1994. In 2001, he became a founding co-director of the HOKISA Children’s Home in Masiphumelele (www.hokisa.co.za). His book A History of Africa (preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu) is told exclusively with African voices. His novel Themba was made into an international movie in 2010.

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