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Right to education: The crisis of 6,000 disenfranchised learners in the Western Cape is a disgrace

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

At least 6,000 Western Cape children have not been placed in schools, which means that 6,000 youngsters have lost the opportunity for a career because someone failed to do their duty.

It is a disgrace that more than 6,000 learners in the Western Cape have not been placed in a school by the end of March. Thousands of learners missed the first term, a violation of their constitutional right to education. As a result, the ANC, SACP, Cosatu, SA Democratic Teachers’ Union and Congress of SA Students have asked the Human Rights Commission to intervene.

It is especially children from historically disadvantaged working-class communities who are still being disadvantaged. In all fairness, the Western Cape is not the only province with this problem. But in no other province is it as bad as in the Western Cape. In the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, the figure by 15 February was less than 500. Notable is that we experienced the same problem this time last year. It was before the pandemic hit, proof that it is not a Covid-19 problem.

Education authorities have been aware of the problem for a number of years and excuses sound the same every year: there is no money to build schools, and parents apply too late. Trade unions, however, point out that most parents applied timeously and supplied the required documents, but their children were still not placed. The fast-growing learner population, due to migration to the larger cities, is also mentioned as an excuse. Yet the number in our most heavily populated province, Gauteng, was fewer than 2,000 when schools reopened.

Political parties’ response to the crisis predictably deteriorated into political mudslinging. Debbie Schäfer (Western Cape head of education) said the ANC should explain why unaffordable salary hikes were considered while the national education budget had been cut. The ANC and its partners alleged that it was a matter of poor planning and that the DA should get its priorities right. Apparently, millions of rands are being budgeted for vaccines at the expense of learners.

It is time that politicians set aside their mutual differences and focus on the crisis at hand. Now is not the time to score political points. The parents couldn’t care less who is responsible for the problem. They demand that their children be in school. Some of the parents said they had been waiting for two years.

Six thousand children who cannot access education have overwhelming negative consequences for the child, families and communities. It is 6,000 youngsters who have lost the opportunity for a career because someone failed to do his or her duty. That some of them are from the Eastern Cape is irrelevant. They are South Africans and have the right to move to follow job opportunities. We can complain until kingdom come that the government is mismanaging money; it will not solve the problem.

Ironically, until now it was the schools that could least afford it that had to take in extra learners. However, it is not only the problem of poor schools. Covid-19 has forced the government to come up with sustainable solutions, because in many cases 60 learners are crammed into one class. 

Given South Africa’s financial position, I see no other solution but to increase the class ratio from 35 to maybe 38 per class so that more learners can be placed in former Model C schools. It will not only promote transformation, it is the only space that is still available. DM

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