As South Africa celebrated Human Rights Day on 21 March, the recent incident of the four-year-old girl, Langalam Viki, who drowned in a toilet tank near her school in the Eastern Cape kept flashing in my mind.
And like a blast from the past, I was reminded of Michael Komape, the five-year-old Limpopo boy who drowned in a pit toilet at his school near Polokwane. It is indeed a sad indictment of our constitutional democracy that any child could die under such circumstances.
The Constitution of South Africa, Act 104 of 1996, protects the right to education and the right to learn in safe environments for all in South Africa. However, the death of children in such horrid conditions shows just how our current systemic failures in education and in public service delivery stand in direct opposition to these basic ideals, as we pause to celebrate Human Rights month this year.
Such deaths should never have happened to any child, whichever way it is explained. It has sadly been 30 years since we attained freedom, and sadly, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) is still making promises to eradicate by 2023 the thousands of pit toilets still used in schools for the poor.
These schools also face the wrath of lack of funds, relentless vandalism, and violence in everyday life. We can go on ad nauseam to ponder the mind-boggling reality that such a resource-rich and wealthy African country still struggles three decades into the post-apartheid era to deliver on a very basic level to protect and provide for its children and youth.
We need to ask fundamental questions such as why South Africa consistently still struggles to deliver on the very basics in the Bill of Rights and Constitution on very simple and affordable things like safe toilets for children at schools.
The answer lies in undoing the societal problems such as sabotage, corruption, extortion and criminal intimidation that have besieged South Africa, which impact on local level, including in our schools. Over the last five years, South Africa has been widely characterised as an emerging “Mafia” state, exacerbated by the global Covid pandemic which created voids and opportunities for criminal syndicates to thrive in collusion with corrupt politicians and civil servants.
This “Mafiasation” has infiltrated every fabric of society, including educational institutions. Aspiring youth have to witness in distress how unethical community leaders buy fake qualifications, including master’s and doctoral “degrees” in order to expedite their access to the corridors of power in politics and economics.
The case of Fort Hare University, described as having been run as a “small Sicily”, is a case in point. The recent assassination attempt on its Vice Chancellor Prof Sakhela Buhlungu and the murder of his bodyguard is a real and worrying example of the attempted siege on public higher education in our country.
Due to the widespread sense among the public of an “absent” state in its failure to ensure the protection and safety of the people and to deliver on repeated promises made in 1994 and over the last 30 years, South Africa is particularly vulnerable to increased Mafiasation at all levels.
Well-organised criminal syndicates are slowly proceeding in taking over every aspect of society, a form of criminal insurrection. Mafiasation thrives where there is an absence of shared values to deliver for the people on the mandates of the Constitution and Bill of Rights — between the state, its public institutions, public service delivery structures, and the people.
Research in schools in all provinces in South Africa shows an increase in violence in poor schools with gangsterism as its major primary source. Not only professors at universities, but also young learners and their educators fear for their lives.
This is a serious national crisis which was placed high on the agenda of the national South African Principals’ Association conference in Kimberley in 2022, and noted by the Department of Basic Education Portfolio Committee.
Already in 2011, the South African Democratic Teachers Union stated that 67,000 teachers had resigned, citing (among others), violence perpetrated by learners in schools (often believed to be gangster related).
Educators on the Cape Flats, for instance, share horrific stories such as those of the gangster-trained 14-year-old assassins who come to school with guns and knives which they intimidatingly display on their desks to force their teachers to give them pass grades or to do their homework for them in full view of their traumatised classmates. Out of fear, their humiliated and terrified teachers often oblige.
The South African Police Services battle to contain the situation — often compromised themselves by gangsters in their midst. Poor, vulnerable children in these schools desperately seek protection against gangs by joining them. A vicious cycle.
According to Statistics South Africa, the biggest percentage of South Africa’s unemployed population is youth at 63.9% (of 10 million) between ages 15 and 24 — the ones who have lost hope and who make up the juvenile gangs that are on the rise in South Africa.
Our townships are dark and unsafe, making it even more favourable for gangsterism to thrive, creating favourable conditions for the emergence of a Mafia paradise.
About 10 years ago a fellow teacher on the Cape Flats shared with me how they used evening classes to support the poor learners at school to provide food, electricity, and a place to quietly study under the supervision of their teachers because the learners needed protection from gangs, harassment, and poverty. This support for learners at this township school continues today, but the intervention is now at risk due to the devastating current energy and economic crisis.
Due to the deepening economic crisis and systemic problems, Amnesty International in 2021 reported that approximately 500,000 additional children in South Africa dropped out of school during the Covid pandemic.
The DBE has called on “collaborative approaches” with communities to assist with addressing the growing gangster problem infiltrating both primary and high schools.
However, in the face of the increasing entrenchment of Mafiasation, we need our schools to become sites of hope for our children and youth. The answer not only lies in implementing our critical pedagogies but also in reviving sport and cultural activities and organisations in our schools where we can dialogue and adopt shared values enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights at street committee levels.
The importance of culture and critical dialogue for freedom was emphasised by well-known social justice intellectuals and activists like Amilcar Cabral and Paulo Freire. However, this is not always an easy task for already overwhelmed teachers in working-class and impoverished schools in South Africa today.
Safety and security in schools are non-negotiable to the right to learn in our schools. However, having said this, we have to be mindful of the neo-liberal approach to safety in schools, which responds with militarisation, surveillance, and increased administrative burdens imposed on already overwhelmed and traumatised teachers.
For example, the security in schools and educational institutions which emerged in the United States after the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999 included the negative use of biometric technology and surveillance. While demanding safety in our schools and communities, we should approach some of these proposed technological solutions with critical insight and due suspicion.
The answer is therefore not to make schools prisons and surveillance sites, or to impose dogmatic inappropriate elitist schools’ “codes of conduct”, but instead to engage critical pedagogies on shared values for social and environmental justice (section 24 of the Constitution). This is best implemented in partnership with the affected local communities themselves.
But for this to be successfully attained, teachers would need more qualitative time to engage effectively in the critical dialogue processes with communities.
Corrupt politicians, criminal syndicates, and powerful capitalist agencies have no interest in protecting vulnerable schools as safe sites for critical pedagogies and dialogue for social justice to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, work to attain human rights to solve the problem of poverty has shown to be dangerous and risky in South Africa.
As an example, in recent years the SA Human Rights Commission has highlighted the number of assassinations and murder of civic and environmental human rights defenders in South Africa. The situation is so serious and of great concern that these assassinations of civic and environmental activists in South Africa were addressed at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2022.
As mentioned earlier, none of the deepening systemic crises in our society should be addressed on their own. They are all contingent on rooting out corruption at every level in collaboration with the community, and to restore human rights dignity at a fundamental level, such as the basic provision of safe toilets for all learners at school, without delay.
We need to rethink together what Batho Pele (“People First”) should mean in our present crisis and to approach the lack of basic provision (water, sanitation, safety, energy etc) as a crime against humanity, because it is causing large-scale suffering in South Africa.
We owe this to the children and youth of South Africa, to protect their schools, colleges and universities as humanising places of safety ensuring their right to learn — and to have dignity and hope amidst the abysmal darkness in danger of completely overwhelming us. DM