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Minister Motshekga seems to be in denial about the true state of SA schools


Trevor McArthur is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Cape Town. His research and teaching revolves around social justice and equality related to education, gender/sexuality and health.

The lack of detail in the Basic Education Minister’s address calls into question her logic for reopening schools to grades 7 and 12 on 1 June.

After weeks of uncertainty about whether, how, and why, schools will reopen, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga finally addressed the nation on Tuesday night (19 May). The objective of the briefing was to provide much-needed clarity and detail around the plan to reopen schools on 1 June. Unfortunately, the minister did everything but provide clarity and certainty. Her address was rather short, thin on detail, and appeared to be rushed. This was evident in her demeanour too, as if to say: “Let’s get this damn thing over with!”

The minister started her briefing by touching on multiple issues affecting schooling in South Africa. She expressed her outrage about the 1,577 cases of burglaries and vandalism at schools – the majority of which occurred in Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal. 

She also discussed the apparent state of readiness as reported by provincial departments of education as well as the need to re-engineer the curriculum to respond to the loss of teaching time. The minister indicated that school nutrition programmes will resume when learners return and assured the nation that schools will have access to water and sanitation to ensure basic hygiene to curb the further spread of the coronavirus. With reference to the provision of water to schools, she asserted: “We will ensure that no school goes without water… Just-in-time delivery will be made”.

The minister’s newfound philosophy of “just-in-time delivery” was one of many shockers. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “How on Earth is the minister and her department going to get water and sanitation to schools in less than two weeks, when they have failed to do so for over 26 years?”

When somebody in the audience raised a similar concern, the minister stated that all other activities, such as sport, music, and dancing competitions, will be cancelled to ensure that her department diverts such budgets and focus only on delivering these essential services. Again, I asked myself, “Where are these schools that actually have substantial budgets for music, sports, and dance competitions?” 

“Surely,” I answered myself, “it cannot be the overwhelming majority of rural and township schools that are unable to cover their municipal bills, purchase printing paper and basic administrative stationary, and are unable to employ and remunerate much-needed SGB posts”. The very schools in dire need of such water and sanitation services.

All these measures in place to get to the crux of her briefing: Schooling for grades 12 and 7 learners will reopen on 1 June. The minister explained:

“There was always certainty that schools would have to be reopened… We are confident that the reopening of schools across provinces will happen as outlined in the protocol that has been developed. 

“The reports we got are showing that preparations have been taking place and good progress has been made. All indications are that the preconditions for the reopening of schools will be met, obviously with the premium being on saving lives.” 

This vague and rather arbitrary assurance was the best we got from the minister. 

When members of the media and citizens sought further clarity around how schools will maintain social distancing, who will conduct the screening of learners and teachers, how those learners, teachers and other school staff with comorbidities will be accommodated and protected, and what the protocols are if a learner or teacher contracts the coronavirus at school, the minister simply deflected responsibility to provincial departments of education, school principals, and the department of health. 

Similarly, when asked how social distancing and hygiene will be ensured in scholar transportation, the minister simply said they are relying on the department of transport to facilitate this. 

A grandmother caring for her two grandchildren also called in to the briefing and asked the minister: “What guarantees can you give me that my grandchildren will be protected from contracting the coronavirus?”

As the old saying goes: What is left unsaid says it all. I am convinced this grandmother was really asking whether the minister can guarantee that she, the grandmother, will be protected from the coronavirus. The minister’s response in short: “Guaranteeing [whether or not] people are safe – it is a very difficult one… I cannot stand here tonight and say, ‘I put my head on the block – nobody is going to die’.” 

Really, minister, was this the “assurance” you came to give us?  One wonders how the minister’s response aligns with her department’s alleged guiding principle of “saving lives”. The mind boggles.

‘Schooling systems’ in South Africa

South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world. As reported in the recent World Inequality Database, the top 1% of South African earners take home almost 20% of all income in the country, while the top 10% take home 65%. The remaining 90% of South African earners get only 35% of total income. Inequality in South Africa is also racialised. The black majority (coloured, Indian, African) typically account for the bulk of low-income earners. Inequality underpins the high levels of poverty and unemployment among the black majority of South Africans. This translates into what former president Thabo Mbeki called the “two nations” phenomenon – the “relatively prosperous white” and the “black poor”. This is the backdrop against which our discussion about education more broadly, and schooling in particular, occurs. 

Schooling, too, mirrors this “two-nation” phenomenon. I contend that schooling in South Africa operates as separate “schooling systems” serving their respective “nations”. The one schooling system serves a predominantly affluent white and, to a lesser extent (from a purely statistical point), a black middle-class constituency. Within this system, one will typically find private and/or independent schools, former “Model C” schools, and some public (almost exclusively formerly “white”) schools. These schools are almost always located in leafy suburbs, gated communities, and so forth. Exclusivity, excellence, and prestige are key. This schooling system accounts for roughly 20% of schools in the country. 

The other schooling system serves the remaining black and poor majority. Schools within this system – quite frankly – litter urban slums, townships, and rural communities. These schools are characterised by little or no access to bare necessities such as textbooks, stationery, as well as water and sanitation. Infrastructure at such schools is typically inadequate, unsecure, and not fit for purpose. Classrooms at such schools are typically overcrowded (as in teacher to learner ratios could be anything from 1:40-60). The overwhelming majority of these schools could be described as dysfunctional. School principals often act as brutal dictators and school management teams are often polarised and generally toxic. The situation is clearly dire.

We are yet to learn what informed the government’s decision to reopen schools

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic illuminates endemic structural inequality in South African schools. Since we are on the topic of so-called “denialists”, I wonder whether Minister Motshekga and her Department of Basic Education are “coronavirus denialists”? I wonder, because by all accounts they appear to be in complete denial of the true state of affairs of most schools in the country. It thus goes without saying that the experience and reality of reopening schools for Grade 7 and 12 learners will be starkly different for these different schooling systems.

The minister, at her briefing, was asked questions around similar lines. In response, she stated: “I think all adults would say that schools are good for children. That’s the bottom line: schools are good for children.” To further back up this claim the minister asserted that the government’s approach is informed by WHO and Unicef protocols. 

She then whipped out her notes and read the following passage: “While we do not yet have enough evidence to measure the effect of school closures on the risk of disease transmission, the adverse effects of school closures on children’s safety, well-being and learning are well documented. Interrupting education services also has serious, long-term consequences for economies and societies such as increased inequality, poorer health outcomes, and reduced social cohesion.” This paragraph comes from the Unicef Framework for Reopening Schools published in April 2020.

This is indeed a compelling case for why governments should reopen schools. But wait, the minister, it seems, failed to read further. The very Unicef document the minister quoted also states the following under the question, “When, where and which schools to reopen?”: 

“The timing of school reopening should be guided by the best interest of the child and overall public health considerations, based on an assessment of the associated benefits and risks and informed by cross-sectoral and context-specific evidence, including education, public health and socio-economic factors”. 

It is precisely this lack of detail in the minister’s address that calls into question her logic for reopening schools. This is especially worrisome after reading the latest modelling for the possible/probable spread of the coronavirus in South Africa. It is predicted that coronavirus infections in South African could peak at about one million infections, resulting in more than 40,000 fatalities. 

How does Minister Motshekga imagine teaching and learning to occur in environments gripped by fear, uncertainty, and corona-fatigue? The reality is that schools are not simply spaces wherein knowledge is transmitted from the bearers of knowledge (teachers) to recipients (learners). Schools are much more complex. Eminent educationists and pedagogues argue that schools should be understood as “complex organisms” and “vibrant organisations”. 

If schools are indeed a microcosm of society, how on Earth does the minister think that the school (that is: its teaching and admin staff as well as learners, parents, tuckshop folks, volunteers, and many others) would be unaffected by what happens outside its gates? DM


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