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Our children are gone with the wind as the school dropout rate reaches gale-force


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.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, an average of 231,000 learners left the education system annually. This more than tripled to 753,000 during the pandemic. Of great concern is the number of about 120,000 girls who become pregnant every year. Only about one-third return to school after the birth of the baby.

The stated intention of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to imprison for six years anyone who keeps a child of school-going age from going to school has made headlines in education circles. The law currently provides for imprisonment of six months, but according to Deputy Minister of Education Dr Reginah Mhaule the DBE plans stronger measures.

The announcement is in reaction to the high dropout rate in South African schools — currently the highest in 20 years. Even before the pandemic, an average of 231,000 learners left the system annually. This number shot up to 753,000 during the pandemic — this is three times more than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Of great concern is the number of about 120,000 girls who become pregnant every year. Only about one-third return to school after the birth of the baby.

This is a problem that affects the whole community. The girls queue up monthly for a government grant. This puts pressure on the already shaky state coffers without them making a contribution to the economy. This, in a country where half the population is already dependent on a social grant and government debt is approaching R4-trillion. Moody’s recently downgraded us to junk status, which indicates a country that cannot repay its debt.

Two poems about which my student wrote an exam this past week indicate the situation. In Delft, Nathan Trantraal describes the bleak existence and vulnerability of children on the Cape Flats. The poet provides a view of the world of violence which holds victims prisoner and writes: Die klippe innie pad sit soes laities oppie sypaadjie/en vra die heeltyd vi jou virre rand/Die wind kom en gan soese man wattie oo sy laities worry nie…/ (The stones in the road sit like kids on the pavement/and ask you all the time for a rand/The wind comes and goes like a man that doesn’t worry about his kids…/)

In the song Kinders van die wind (Children of the wind) Koos du Plessis writes about his fellow men who are defenceless victims of their circumstances. He compares them with vergane skepe /in die kelders van die see / (sunken ships/in the cellars of the sea).

You see the dropouts everywhere: in queues at the post office and where they sit beside the road begging virre rand. Many will never have a qualification or a job, which contributes to the growing joblessness rate. The government’s plan thus makes sense.

But it will require more than legislation to turn the ship around. Given the many socioeconomic factors which prevent children from finishing school, the government cannot do this alone. As the African proverb says: it takes a village to raise a child. It remains the duty of parents to ensure that their children attend school. But the situation in many homes does not always promote learning. As Trantraal writes above, there are too many fathers who do not worry about their kids (soese man wattie oo sy laities worry nie).

It is not the school’s responsibility to run after the children. But it is the principal’s responsibility to ensure that the school functions effectively. This includes ensuring that teachers are present and teaching; and that the governing body plays a supervisory role.

If we fail, we create – in the words of Koos du Plessis – a generation of wanderers without direction/and seekers who never find (swerwers sonder rigting/en soekers wat nooit vind). In the end, everyone will just be children gone with the wind (kinders van die wind). DM


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  • Philip Mirkin says:

    Thank you Michael. This is our greatest national tragedy. So poignantly put.
    Addressing this should be priority number one.

  • Chris Green says:

    Ignoring for a moment the good intentions of anything talked about by the Africans Nationalising Corruption, Hendrik Verwoerd must be ecstatic at how close to what he and his ilk wanted regarding education of the “Bantu”, is being achieved and possibly exceeded (by the ” high performing” ANC) with the schooling/education of our future generations. Leaders in a global society they will not be – leaders of gangs, ret looting and whacky ideologies they may well be.

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