Opinionista Mark Heywood 23 January 2015

Our national shame: In memory of Michael Komape, 2009-2014

On 20 January his family marked the first anniversary of the death of little Michael Komape in the pit of a toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School in Chebeng village, Limpopo. On Monday, 26 January, it will be the anniversary of his funeral.

That day a year ago the mayor of Polokwane and officials from the department of basic education (DBE) all flew in to shed their crocodile tears and make promises they didn’t intend to keep. But this week his death’s anniversary was mourned only by his parents, five siblings and close relatives.

Although a plan and promises had been made to “eradicate pit toilets in 2014”, last week many learners returned to their schools to find pit toilets still in place – back to the indignity of either doing it in the bushes or risking their lives using pit toilets.

In 2014 Michael was not the only child to die by falling into a toilet. Later in the year two other youngsters died in KwaZulu-Natal. A few months later, at Tshikhudini Primary School in Limpopo, another little child, a girl this time, had a near death experience.

In her words, “I went to the toilet to pee with my friend. I sat on the seat and the worms started moving on my body, making me to panic. I was scared of the worms and I fell inside the toilet pit, which was full of worms. I was covered in faeces and worms. I don’t know how long I stayed in there. I screamed out for help until a boy came to my rescue and pulled me out.”

The girl (her name was withheld by the newspaper) was lucky. She has her life and only her nightmares to scar her waking and sleeping hours.

How would you feel if that was your daughter?

But perhaps the South African government did do something in memory of Michael after all? On 18 January it ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICESCR is a very important treaty of the United Nations General Assembly. Once ratified it creates a legal duty on the signatory government to enact its provisions into local law. Article 13 deals with the right to education. Its ratification is most welcome and it should strengthen the hands of social justice activists and the government… but there was a sting in the tail.

But before I talk about the sting, let’s just recall why we South Africans came to attach so much symbolic importance to education.

Under the apartheid grand design inferior education for black children was one of the most humiliating, degrading aspects of apartheid.

In the infamous words of Hendrik Verwoerd, There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.

Verwoerd and his merry band of racists implemented this policy of Bantu education but eventually it was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In 1976 the revolt that started at Morris Isaacson High School and spread across our land woke the African National Congress (ANC) in exile from its torpor. The refugees from Bantu education became the students at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, the heroes on death row, the heroic soldiers who went to prison or exile for an ideal. Many of them are alive today. Many are in government. I address this article in part to them.

For those who fought for freedom, equality of education was the supreme right to assert. It is symbolically and substantively important. And it is for these reasons that, unlike many other rights in the Constitution’s bill of rights, education was given prime position as a right that must be immediately realised by government. It is not chained to words like “progressive realisation” or “available resources” a la health, housing and social security.

(As an aside, judging by a recent press statement the South African Communist Party [SACP] seems more interested in the Constitution’s limitations than its duties. Well, sorry to say, education is not one of them.)

So, coming back to the ICESR, it came as a surprise to find that our government has attached a formal qualification to its ratification of the ICESCR, one that insidiously tries to water down the nature of the fundamental duties the Constitution imposes on the state to provide quality education.

The declaration reads, “The government of the Republic of South will give progressive effect to the right to education, as provided for in Article 13 (2)(a) and Article 14, within the framework of its National Education Policy and available resources.”

This statement might seem innocuous, even broadly progressive, but it is totally at odds with the Constitution, which says, “Everyone has a right to a basic education.”

Full stop.

Shame on our government. Shame on the ANC.

What this declaration seems to signal is that “available resources” will continue to be the excuse for pit toilets, inadequately trained and insufficient teachers, school-ground rape, teenage pregnancy and lack of desks and tables for children of the poor of South Africa. “Available resources” will help us dispose of our culpability for the failed lives of the over 50% of children who leave school without even entering the matric exam hall.

Education will be provided incrementally. Full stop. The reality is that inequality will widen. Full stop. This is because, as the government will soon argue in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, it cannot be expected to “meet a standard of perfection”.

Tragically, history is turning full circle.

Last year fewer students enrolled for mathematics and fewer sat maths at matric than in 2013. In the Annual National Assessments (ANA) at grade nine the average pass rate for maths was 10.8%. Without the benefit of quality education many of our children have no choice but to be hewers of wood, or more likely beggars of pennies, petty thieves or smokers of nyaope – for what other openings are there in life? Is it any wonder that in many districts of the country youth unemployment is in the region of 60%?

Inequality is bouncing back and the tragedy is that it’s doing it in our education system – the theatre for our dreams of equality.

For instance, according to analysis provided by Equal Education, of the 44,790 ‘Quintile 1’ (lowest income schools) students who wrote mathematics in 2013, 12,886 passed with 40% and above (that’s 29%). And of the 50,622 ‘Quintile 5’ (highest income schools) students who wrote mathematics in 2013, 32,440 passed with 40% and above (that’s 64%). In mathematics the differential is therefore more than double.

The result of this inequality is that our democratic government is effectively denying hundreds of thousands of children an elementary and essential aspect of national and global citizenship.

I do not mean my harsh words as an attack on the efforts of many people, including politicians and maybe even the minister of basic education, her deputy and her staff. Most of these people work extremely hard with the resources they have to fix the education system. The problem is not theirs. It’s their colleagues in the government who have forgotten about the rights and dignity of the African child. It’s also mine and yours.

So what is to be done?

Ten years ago, our country commenced its treatment programme on HIV. Aids denialism had become a cause of national shame for the country and the good people in the government. A citizen uprising led by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) helped force political will into existence. In 2007 a five-year multi-sectoral national strategic plan on HIV was developed and resources were massively increased. The plan involved all government departments and the deputy president was made its chairperson. Ten years later, although far from perfect or secure, the response to HIV has become one of the few things we can boast about in the world. Two and a half million adults and children owe their lives to it.

Today basic education has become our national shame. The same sort of turn around plan devised for HIV is what we need with education. We need genuine political will. We need all the necessary resources. We need a broad social mobilisation. We need ambitious targets. We need relentless pressure from learners, teachers and parents.

But it starts with empathy, anger and a revolt.

Are you up to it? DM