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2012: The year of educating dangerously

Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

The 2012 school year has seemed like a marathon to children, parents and the public alike. Scandals in education have been at the heart of despair and they cast a pall over the country's future. Still, there is hope. Faint it may be, but still it is hope.

Barely a week after 2012 began, I remember squeezing into a lecture hall in downtown Pretoria for the release of the 2011 matric results. I shuffled up to the front row, where Minister Angie Motshekga was sitting with her basic education department director general, Bobby Soobrayan, alongside the country’s top-achieving students. Motshekga took the stage and proudly opened an oversized envelope. The pass rate was 70.2%, the highest in years. Overall pass rates are hollow numbers sometimes, but it still offered hope for a positive 2012.

As this year’s Grade 12s sit their NSC exams this week, I can’t help but despair at what has happened since that humid January evening. Despite the priority the government’s placed on education and the deep concern we all claim to hold, we are heartbreakingly far from providing free, equal and universal education that will enable youth to enter further studies or find work and benefit their community and country.

The most publicised scandal of the year (after Marikana) was the refusal of the department of basic education to provide textbooks to learners in Limpopo. I say “refusal” because they were aware of the problem as early as December 2011. They knew there was a problem when dragged to court by Section27. They knew there was a problem when they were dragged to court again. Throughout the tragic comedy, the minister shirked her responsibility and the department flatly lied. It allegedly went to great lengths to intimidate its opposition (those wanting books delivered). We saw gross incompetence and worse – a disregard for students’ education.

That wasn’t the only crisis. For months, protests in Northern Cape’s John Taolo Gaetsewe District forced 16,000 students and 400 teachers out of school. Striking residents, including parents, said they were prepared to wait until 2020 for their children to get educated or until the government meets demands relating to local leadership and roads.

President Zuma has been rapping about the launch of the Eastern Cape schools refurbishment programme where 49 mud schools are being replaced, but who could forget the shame of seeing a Sunday Times cover featuring Selowe Primary School where students were learning under the shade of trees? 

Zwelinzima Vavi, the hamstrung activist, outlined the infrastructure crisis in July: “[A total of] 2,400 schools, mainly in rural areas, have no water supply; 3,600 have no electricity and 1,000 schools have no ablution facilities. Only 7% of schools have libraries, only 5% have stocked science laboratories and just 1% of the schools have internet access.”

Then, as the school year was coming to a close, two articles left me reeling. A week ago, a 16-year-old student at a Pretoria high school was stabbed and killed with a pocketknife. The fight started over an argument about a pencil. On Monday, a 19-year-old student was stabbed at his high school in Mossel Bay during morning break. What is a learning environment without basic safety and security? The violence follows a stream of reports of sexual abuse between students themselves as well as teachers who exploit their positions.

These are the crises of 2012. The system inherited in 1994 is yet to be dismantled and rebuilt with the benefits of transformation, but there have been achievements. Since ’94, there has been increased access to schooling and success in getting girls into the system. Pupil-to-teacher ratios have dropped and last year government, business, labour and community groups agreed in the Accord on Basic Education to confront the challenges together. These, however, are belittled by the outrageous crisis.

The problems bleed from an era of racial exclusion and ongoing issues of poverty, inequality and dysfunctional aspects of the state. But they are issues we can all relate to. If you’ve been to school, you know you need the resources – classrooms, books, teachers – to learn. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how hard it is to study in an environment with high levels of violence or sexual abuse.

How we tackle these problems will determine the country’s future. It was Nelson Mandela who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” There’s a hell of a lot that needs to be changed in South Africa, and many of the problems are being left to the next generation. 

But 2012 did provide some hope. Without the bravery of a principal, a school governing body, Section27 and continued public pressure, we would have missed the Limpopo textbook farce. Who knows what would have happened if Motshekga’s department was never taken to court? In the case of Selowe Primary School, it was media pressure that caught our attention and prompted businesses to donate classrooms so children wouldn’t have to learn under trees.

These examples taught us that in spite of the government’s blunders, we can make advancements. As we look to 2013, it’s clear that the fight for education is a struggle needing more recruits. It’s a struggle to equip our youth with the ability to understand and interpret the environment they live in, to gain the necessary skills to find work, establish safe and secure lives, and improve their own communities.

Companies must continue their efforts to help fund infrastructure and resources. Individuals must volunteer to teach, join a school governing body, or lobby government to fulfil its mandate. This isn’t a stretch: citizens have continually shown their goodwill and commitment through causes such as Nelson Mandela Day and civil society groups, and we know public efforts can make a difference.

In just a few months, we’ll hear the results of the class of 2012. The minister is hopeful the overall pass rate will continue to rise, but we know that achieving a pass doesn’t necessarily mean a young person is ready for further study or work. There are deep and troubling problems in even the most basic aspects of education. And we know there is something we can do about it. Now. DM


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