In a radio interview on SAfm on 29 May, Dr Pali Lehohla, former Statistician-General of South Africa, notes the existing layered challenges of inequality and unemployment currently gripping our country, and points out how Covid-19 affects the poor the most.
Lehohla contends that it is often during a moment of crisis, like this pandemic, that programmes to drive fundamental transformation of South Africa’s known legacies of socioeconomic ills are necessary. He argues that “it is when the fear is with us that we begin to negotiate. If there is no reconstruction in the eye of the storm, the storm will go and nothing will be done”.
History is replete with examples of this failure to drive change or plan for the change during a crisis, resulting in conditions getting worse. An example is the declining standard of living, and in access to basic services brought about by the 2008 global financial crisis. Closer to home, the failure to transform the public health system following the scourge of the HIV-AIDS pandemic is testament to Lehohla’s sentiments.
These views led me to look at the challenges facing the education system differently. As everybody has noted, Covid-19 is highlighting the fault lines and the acute systemic inequalities and lack of basic infrastructure in South African society broadly, and the education system in particular. The question of whether to open schools or not has invited previously unheard and muted voices in our communities to this conversation.
Up to now, the inequalities in education have been left to schools and the Department of Basic Education and its networks to respond to, whether it be calls for the eradication of pit toilets, access to clean running water, employment of enough skilled educators, properly equipped classrooms or the ensuring of safety in schools. There has also been a continuum of engagement by “professional” agencies in this space. Unions have been carrying the burden to improve working conditions of educators on their own, and have often faced public derision when opting for industrial action as a means to this end.
Some NGOs, like Equal Education and Section 27, act as external agitators while not always being appreciated by authorities. Foundations such as Shanduka and Zennex have provided resources for improvement in targeted areas. In 2013, the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) was set up to mobilise resources from the business community to support the basic education system in meeting the education goals of the National Development Plan. The NECT initiative resulted in numerous models of improving learning outcomes at scale so that schools in underprivileged communities can adopt practices known to make schools that work, actually work. The Programme to Improve Learning Outcomes (PILO), which seeks to improve curriculum delivery and management practices at scale across all grades, was born out of that. There is ongoing work by the academic and research communities that remain disconnected from the general public, including the school public.
All these efforts have had some success, but have not had the desired effect of making equal access to quality education a universal reality in South Africa. They have not been able to mobilise a collective consciousness of the importance of sustaining a functioning education system in the country – at least not in the same way that we saw with the rallying together of organisations behind the HIV-AIDS movement, for example.
The ongoing demands of labour unions for South Africa to do what it has failed to do since 1994 makes better sense for me in Lehohla’s reasoning. If we cannot, for instance, provide proper water and sanitation facilities – more so in our rural schools now, or have concrete plans for that to happen – then Covid-19 will pass and we will go back to square one. The National Disaster Framework gives government a lever to fast track that. This must be done now. It is an opportunity not to be missed.
The increased voices on the safety of schools during Covid-19 and their functionality are huge building blocks for societal recognition of the centrality of education in the development of the country. All South Africans should be mobilised to co-own the education system – it cannot continue to be the responsibility of officials in the school system, unions representing educators, and parents with learners in schools alone. After all, we know that it takes a village to raise a child, and education is the biggest and most successful instrument for that.
We cannot wait for the post-Covid-19 era to start thinking about what needs to be done. The time is now to have each community claiming education as its own and taking responsibility to assess readiness, working alongside civil society professionals, labour unions and government. It is a necessary compact. The voices we hear now must be translated into concrete actions to make a difference.
Possibilities include setting up of learning from home spaces in each neighbourhood; collaborating on after care for children in communal spaces like community centres and religious institutions; having regular education imbizos in our communities to receive feedback from schools about what they are doing and what challenges they are facing; and allowing the community to give input into how facilities and processes can be bettered. Local religious, civil society, government, business and political leaders should be engaged to come on board the education transformation journey along with those currently involved.
Starting to do this now, or at least designing and testing ways of doing this, will result in a new culture of school ownership. The social compact and community ownership needed for us to attain universal access to quality education requires that even government commits to seeing this as a national priority. The schooling system is too big (and important) to fail.
At another level it has been disheartening to see the Minister of Basic Education being isolated as the “main man” who must solve the challenges put in the spotlight by Covid-19. This should not be so. KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala raised the issue of the funding of schools for Covid-19 readiness with President Cyril Ramaphosa, noting that nothing was said about education in the announced R500-billion relief fund. The province further made a request for additional funding. To date there has not been any public response.
It seems like DBE and the provinces have to find resources, and in particular provinces have to reallocate existing resources, to fund Covid-19 requirements for school functionality. It is imperative that the delivery of an effective education system is prioritised and its management is visibly supported and led from the highest office of the land. The current pandemic is an opportunity to do that.
The growing mistrust of the department of basic education by key stakeholders and the public emanating from the mixed announcements about the reopening of schools makes this task even more urgent.
Ke nako! DM