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Crisis after crisis – and when will we start caring?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Previously, it was the HIV/AIDS crisis. Today, it is the education crisis. The public is sitting idly by as one or two brave souls take on an indifferent government to make it do its job. What will it take for us, the people, to start making ourselves heard?

There is just one reason that the end of June was set by the department of basic education as a deadline by which textbooks would be delivered to schools in Limpopo – the non-profit organisation Section27 went to the South Gauteng High Court and sued to get the matter fixed. It obtained this concession from the department in an out-of-court settlement.

This is astonishing, in light of the gravity of the situation. Whilst the affected grades (one to three, and 10) are not usually the ones watched by the public – we only care about matriculants, after all, don’t we? – this is the education of the nation’s children we are talking about here. The reluctance of the DoBE at national and provincial level to show any ruthlessness in dealing with the responsible people is an outrage.

It gets much worse. According to a report by the Mail & Guardian, the government treats the right to basic education as a progressive right instead of a basic one. The result is that those in power continuously fail to meet the most basic demands of the Constitution.

“The failure of the government to provide millions of pupils with basic resources is a story told by desperate principals, tired teachers and angry pupils who are frustrated with inadequate responses to their demands,” the M&G said. “Now civil society organisations are increasingly taking the basic education department and its provincial counterparts to court to see that pupils get a better standard of education.”

Please just spend one minute (look up at the ceiling if you must) thinking about this fact. As far as education is concerned, the government is failing to deliver on its most basic mandate. Never mind the transformation stuff; it can’t even do the things that any proper government in the world would be expected to.

What is even more striking is the apparent nonchalance of the public in the face of this scandal. Are we that desensitised to collapses in the basic structures and tenets of a civilised society? This particular column will in all likelihood only be read by people with access to the internet, which means that you are among the top 20% in terms of economic disparity. I very much doubt that the Limpopo textbook crisis has touched you personally. Is that why we choose to regard this problem as being at arm’s length – because the poor are the problem of the African National Congress (the party they elected)?

I’ve been thinking back to the period when the most pressing political issue of the day was the HIV/Aids crisis, and we should pause to reflect on how that’s simply not the case anymore. It’s one thing that President Jacob Zuma has done well, if you’re keeping score. But I digress: the point is that even back then, when the ANC government had a lot more goodwill to squander, we were content to sit back and let the Treatment Action Campaign fight almost alone to ensure that HIV-positive people could get antiretroviral treatment so that they could live longer and happier lives. Today, an HIV-positive mother can almost guarantee that her child need not carry the disease thanks to the work of organisations like TAC. This victory is immense – and yet, the public (as angry as we might have been) wasn’t really up in arms about this.

Oh, when the pain came home, we all got up. When the government threatened to put a R500 dent in our pockets every month by putting up e-tolls on the highway, then we got really excited.

Some have speculated that the Limpopo education crisis might be Zuma’s Waterloo. Perhaps not – this president doesn’t have as many things going wrong at once as the previous one did before he fell. But the next crisis is looming, and who knows what it will be? The opportunities for national disasters abound: the country is about to issue the largest tender ever to build nuclear power plants – I can’t be the only one who reads that and immediately goes cold at the prospect of the plundering and the corruption that awaits us. The rising acid mine water continues to threaten Johannesburg. The threat of xenophobic violence just won’t go away. And the ruling tripartite alliance is still on the same path of slow-motion decay, with political assassinations now starting to feature on the menu. 

We can’t keep expecting that some brave person will rise up, form an NGO and march to the nearest court to save us all. We had TAC before, and Section27 is doing more for the neediest children in the country than most people employed in all the education departments. What is the point of their efforts if nothing changes in the long term with the government, and especially with us, the public? DM


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