First published in Daily Maverick 168.
The matric class of 2020 deserves a national shout-out. The class, the largest ever with more than a million candidates, is midway through final exams in the most awkward conditions of Covid-19 lockdown. On Monday, physical science learners will be temperature-checked, sanitised, screened and masked-up before sitting for a three-hour chemistry paper.
Selfishly, I am relieved that my daughter, Ella, escaped being in the bleak matric class of 2020. She wrote matric in 2019 in a year packed with physical activities on school grounds and sprinkled with closely-knit celebratory distractions in a pre-mask, pre-1.5m distance, pre-curfew era. As a first-year university student this year, she has experienced the isolation and relentlessness of remote online learning and has not set foot on campus since the end of March.
But had Ella been in the matric class of 2020, she would have been well-prepared for exams, just like other privileged learners from well-resourced former model C schools which have been able to weather the devastation wrought by the pandemic.
But far too many learners in the matric class of 2020 have been falling through the cracks, with poor access to resources – their experience like a school of hard knocks. Overall, basic education had infrastructure cuts of R2-billion announced in June, to divert funds to support Covid-19 relief. This has affected almost 2,000 projects. These cuts came on the back of earlier cuts of R1.9-billion announced in Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s national budget in late January.
In an attempt to rescue the year during hard lockdown, school support systems were rolled out for learners, especially matrics, backed up with radio, TV and online lessons, and learning material on 330 zero-rated websites. But, in reality, these were not accessible to all learners. Research by Equal Education showed that many learners battled to navigate online programmes and most were in English, not mother tongue.
It has been heartbreaking to see vulnerable learners passing the school days idly at home for a large part of the year, squeezed out of an already compromised, uncaring system.
Instead of pumping funding – and the expertise to go with it – to rescue education for learners from cash-strapped homes, the government revealed the callousness of a skewed system late in October by allocating a “last” R10.5-billion from the fiscus to rescue a failed state airline.
Amid a public uproar, the government attempted an unpersuasive semantic argument, insisting that the bailout was actually not a bailout because the funds were not a cash injection into the bankrupt airline, but would bankroll its business rescue process.
The absurdity of the government’s decision was raised during a weekly internal journalism training session at Daily Maverick last week hosted by business journalist Ray Mahlaka, who has closely followed the SAA story. Questions were asked about the unaffordability of the decision and how these funds would be better served for a rescue plan to fix things that really impacted on South Africans, such as education. Questions were also raised about whether the airline was primarily a “vanity project” of national pride, with many countries abandoning the notion of propping up a money-guzzling state airline – even if it was an “embassy with wings” – and rather prioritising their budget on pressing basic needs.
Mahlaka has written that the funds for SAA “will come from deteriorating taxpayer funds. And, controversially, budgets of about 30 government departments, which roll out crucial service delivery and social programmes, will be cut and reallocated to the airline.”
This includes about R1.4-billion redirected from the basic and higher education departments.
Imagine if R10.5-billion could be used instead to bail out vulnerable learners. Imagine if the funds were ploughed into intense (corruption-free) learner programmes in rural areas to assist school children to get through the year, and lay the foundations for the longer-term success of future generations. Instead of bailing out SAA, the government could follow through on its commitment to making universal access to the internet a priority and urgently levelling the playing fields.
We need the dedication that is injected into former model C schools extended to each and every no-fee paying school. We need buy-in from the private sector and from privileged families, who need to take off their blinkers and show empathy. At the very heart of it, we need ministers and public representatives to stop dicking around and to prioritise their bailouts. They should look in the mirror and ask themselves: What would they do if it was their child at risk of being left behind. DM168
Janet Heard is a managing editor at Daily Maverick.
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