The road to Giyani is new. The smell of fresh asphalt fills the air. The new safety barriers reflect the glaring heat. The road curves through the acacia-strewn landscape. Giant cacti and rock koppies stand sentry over the scattered villages. This is the heart of the Limpopo bushveld on the northern bank of the Klein (Little) Letaba River. Giyani, the ‘place where the people dance’ and ‘land of the friendly people’, is spectacular country.
Water is scarce here. Welcome rains have broken the back of a prolonged drought. It has brought relief to commercial farmers and sprawling game parks. But as one of the villagers I met said, “The municipality stopped our water supply from the Nsami Dam, close to my village. Last year they told us that it was nearly empty. But now the rains have come and the dam is full, so why have they not provided us with water? I see the pipes pass my house carrying water to the towns and those who live in suburbs. We have no water in our homes. How can children learn if there is no water in the schools? Why have they forgotten us?”
Official statistics put unemployment at between a quarter and a third. Those most affected are women and youth. But, that said, statistics are scant. In the textbook scandal last year nobody knew the exact number of schools in the area. The Limpopo Department of Education placed the number of schools in the province at 5,297 schools in May 2012; by October 2012, the number was quoted as 4,078. And yet we wonder why textbooks failed to be delivered.
We arrive at the gas station. Our rendezvous is with Solanga. I wonder how I would recognise him. I don’t have think much further. He stands in a T-shirt emblazoned with “HIV-POSITIVE”, announcing himself proudly to the world.
I think back to the dark days of denialism. He would have been beaten up for wearing such a T-shirt at the time when the insane policies of a government created a human catastrophe that made South Africa the epicentre of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Over 350,000 innocent lives were lost tragically. Thankfully this madness is over. The current government and the minister of health have revolutionised treatment. Over 1, 5 million HIV-positive people are on ARVs.
“The stigma has largely evaporated. But we still need privacy, and many don’t want the whole community to know. There are many cases of patients having to share their medicines because they have run out. But while we have a good minister, we still struggle to get answers from local officials,” says Solanga, who was one of the thousands of activists of the Treatment Action Campaign that played a sterling role in confronting an uncaring government and forcing it to change its policy.
We are taken to a church hall. There are nearly a hundred activists from around Giyani. They have been waiting patiently. Most are women. Many carry small children. I listen carefully to their testimony.
“Our children suffer. We, as the community, came together and built a community school. When we won democracy we approached the Department of Basic Education for financial assistance. They took over the school. They promised us more classrooms. They have not come back. The roof is leaking; the teachers and principal have to use one of the classrooms as an office and a storeroom; the classrooms are overcrowded. Would they do this to their own children?”
I reflect on the current loud political debates in the mainstream media, labour unions and government about the right to strike for teachers. I wonder how this relates to the daily hardships that these children face. I see the pain in the faces of these parents and remember Mandela saying “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
But we have given them a poisoned chalice. And as the public fury of national leaders rises on all sides the most important focus – our children with their hopes and aspirations – are lost in the mirage of democracy.
I think of the R207 billion we spend on the education system. The evidence I hear here is one of failure. It is a leaking bucket. Who is to be held accountable? Can we begin with the top? There is absolutely no reason why the national minister cannot institute norms and standards immediately that guarantee that our children have weather-proofed roofs over their heads; that there are desks; that windows are fixed up; that there are toilets that work; that there is water in the school; that there are administration and office space for teachers and principals. Can we institute deadlines and ensure that the state officials mandated to deliver understand they will be fired if they do not? Can we not have our elected officials put their heads on the block?
This is a classic opportunity to build a public/private/community partnership that will leverage the CSI budgets of corporates and harness their expertise and project management skills. In the wake of the price fixing scandal that major construction companies are embroiled in, this could be a great way to restore reparations and deliver the public goods that benefit our children. Fines are an easy way out.
Instead of the bullying tactics of politicians, can we not have a partnership with social organisations such as Section27, Equal Education and others? Can we not build a roadmap that brings all of us together – parents, teacher unions, business, NGOs, school governing boards and the Development Bank of Southern Africa? Sorting out the infrastructure mess is not rocket science.
As one parent said, “Why don’t they treat us as human beings? Why must they steal money meant for our children? We voted them into power. Now they must serve us. And they must use proper companies so the buildings don’t fall down or leak in the rains.”
One cannot argue with the logic and wisdom of the very people who won our freedom, and yet today suffer the woeful neglect of those in power. DM
Nigerians drink more Guinness than the Irish.