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Black children’s lives matter

Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Editorial

Black children’s lives matter

The elderly and children in Lavender Hill are fed on April 16, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. Hunger is a growing concern in Lavender Hill during the lockdown. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

June 16, 2020, is the 44th anniversary of the start of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976. Because of Covid-19, it will probably be the most difficult year young people in South Africa have faced since those brutal and murderous days. Millions are hungry. Millions have had their dreams of schooling interrupted. Young people will be bearing the brunt of job losses, that is if they had a job in the first place. Sadly, today should be considered a day of shame rather than celebration; a day for an urgent and tangible recommitment to equality for young people.

In recent weeks, mass protests that started in the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd have been carried forward by young people all over the world. These have been the strongest assertion for decades that the capitalist system must change and that structural racism against black people must end. 

And protesters demand that it must be ended immediately, not with lip-service and crocodile tears, but with reform, and reparation.

We support these protests. We support civil disobedience when necessary. We support the refusal to abide by “rules” and to protest in a way that can be most easily ignored, and overlooked by those with wealth and power.

However, in South Africa, recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement demands more than outward-looking expressions of solidarity. It requires deep introspection by all people whose wealth or race or class protects them from police violence and the daily indignities of perpetual poverty. 

We must consider the implication of the fact that 26 years after the end of apartheid, most black lives are less valued and protected than all white lives.

Black Lives Matter in South Africa too. Black Women’s Lives matter. Black Children’s Lives Matter. Black Migrant’s Lives Matter. Black Worker’s lives Matter. Queer Black Lives Matter.

On Youth Day 2020, the most obvious area for soul-searching is how society treats black children’s lives. In this respect, Covid-19 has exposed the enduring, deepening and intolerable inequality in our food and education system – and how they impact on children’s opportunities.

It is a national disgrace that even before Covid-19, 27% of all South African children under five years of age were stunted because of insufficient nutrition. Fortunately, “only” 6% of children suffer “under-nourishment” (defined as “sufficient dietary energy needed for an active and healthy life”).  According to the authors of the 2019 annual Child Gauge, this is because, compared to other countries in Southern Africa, “there is enough food to cater for the majority of South Africa’s population”. But despite this:

“distribution and accessibility constraints, coupled with high rates of poverty and inequality, mean that a substantial proportion of the country’s population is food insecure.” 

To try to alleviate this harm and to try and fulfill a raft of Constitutional obligations to children (children’s rights to “basic nutrition” and everyone’s rights to “sufficient food” being the foremost), the government’s National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) normally provides one meal a day to nine million children during school terms. This has had a documented benefit in reducing reported child hunger. 

Ten weeks ago, this programme was suspended, but without putting in place adequate alternative systems to feed hungry children. 

Since then, many more children have been exposed to malnutrition.

It’s, therefore, an even greater disgrace that a number of School Governing Bodies and Equal Education, represented by SECTION27 and the EE Law Centre, have had to file urgent court papers to demand that the NSNP be restarted immediately. (You will find a report on this case and several of the learners’ heart-rending affidavits in this newsletter).

Nine million learners’ health, development and educational outcomes depend on the NSNP. 43 million meals a week are dependent on it.

Yet, according to an affidavit by Professor Jeremy Seekings, a conditional grant for the NSNP of about R7-billion “appears to have been unspent during April and May 2020, despite a memorandum from the National Treasury advising on how some of this budget could be used to run emergency feeding schemes for school children – if Parliament approved this.” 

Seekings goes on:

“I am told that the national Department of Basic Education never organised parliamentary approval. I assume that the funds remain unused.

“The Department of Social Development tells me that ‘At the beginning of the lockdown, we contacted the Department of [Basic] Education’, asking about plans for school feeding; ‘we were told that kids will eat what they used to eat while schools were closed’. It is said that the DBE was viewing the lockdown as a school holiday. Schools would catch up on teaching days – and, presumably, school meals – later in the year. With hindsight this (if true) was a bad call, but even at the time the DBE surely erred in thinking that the prospect of school meals later in the year was any substitute for feeding children during the lockdown.”

We don’t yet know whether the government will oppose this litigation, but in our view, no amount of excuses and pleas from the Minister of Basic Education are acceptable. 

If it was your child, you would have found a way. 

Find a way now.

But tragically, this 16 June, we must remember that the hunger crisis is just a sliver of a bigger crisis that confronts education and black children. 

Because of Covid-19, we closed all our schools. But as we begin the phased reopening of schools, it’s clear already that while all learners may be equal under the Constitution, some learners are more equal than others. 

It is a safe bet that outbreaks of Covid-19, because of overcrowding in the schools and homes of poor learners, will disrupt the resumption of education in most poor schools for many months to come. By contrast, private schools and the few better resourced public schools will be able to resume education in “a new normal”.

Inequality in education will get even wider.

Do we accept this?

If not, now is the time to move from locking down to scaling up

Now is the time when it is incumbent on us all to find ways to demand of the government and the private business sector that a plan be devised immediately to fix all our schools by no later than the end of 2020. 

Quality and equal education for all, regardless of class, must be a central plank of the Covid-19 economic and social reconstruction plan that President Cyril Ramaphosa keeps promising. If the government and business were willing to lose R13-billion a day to prevent Covid-19 during the Level 5 lockdown, how many billions are we prepared to invest and spend (not lose) to fix school infrastructure?

Fixing schools so that they can all practice physical distancing equally is one of the best Covid-19 prevention strategies we have.

So, just as 16 June 1976 gave birth to a movement that demanded and fought for racial equality and an end to apartheid, 16 June 2020 – the year of Covid-19 – must give birth to a movement that seeks an urgent end to the inequalities that blight black lives today, starting with black children’s lives and the education system. DM/MC

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