Opinion: Will government intervene after Eastern Cape school closures?
Approximately 12 000 learners in the Eastern Cape have had their schools forcibly placed under lockdown by their parents over the past four weeks. These dramatic closures have been seen across Uitenhage, the Port Elizabeth Northern Areas and Grahamstown.
Gates are locked; no one may enter, at least not for educational purposes. In some schools, staff members who attempt to breach the lockdown may find themselves on the nasty side of angry parents.
And these parents are angry, very angry. Their children's schools are under-funded – on average, they have one teacher to every 90 pupils. Children go to school and find themselves idling or unheard in huge classes where the teachers struggle to control them.
Discipline goes out of the window, teachers get gatvol, principals come close to nervous breakdowns, and school life slowly disintegrates.
Under such conditions, would you keep sending your child to school? These parents have decided that enough is enough. Such schools have become unsafe environments.
In the discussions around the public education system in South Africa, there is often an uncritical moralism advocating for children to be "kept at school at all costs", for "education to not be disrupted" and for "children to be in classrooms at all times".
This is because, as the narrative goes, education is the key to all our problems, schooling must never be disrupted – it is sacrosanct.
This position is understandable in a country where school is often disrupted for frivolous or unsound reasons, usually advanced by teacher union politics.
However, it is also a naïve view because there are times when schooling must be justifiably disrupted. This is when conditions can be considered abnormal or no longer conducive to learning. In the 1970s and 1980s, the apartheid regime created such an inhumane environment within society as a whole.
Today, however, abnormality in human relations is often found in the local microcosm that is the public school itself. Abnormality is the norm, such that we now consider our schools with their litany of problems to be normal so long as they are not being burnt or stoned.
Yet, we know that much of what children experience in our public schools cannot in any way be considered normal. The problems are very well known, they need not be listed again here.
The more destructive elements such as violence, rape and drug-trafficking are acknowledged, nobody denies their existence. Less acknowledged, however, is the systematic erosion of children's sense of self, dignity and intellectual personhood that takes place as a result of going to schools which are badly run, severely under-resourced and overcrowded. Even without the gangsters, the drugs and the violence, attending a public school in South Africa can be a highly unpleasant daily experience.
Consider the problem of being a girl who is menstruating in a school with broken toilets and intermittent water service. Of being a child who has to hold it in or run to the bush because there are no ablutions of any kind. Of being a child that must learn to be physically aggressive because bullying is endemic in the school. Of being a boy who is socialised into a culture where male teachers routinely harass female students.
This while the education administrators send their children to schools with freshly-clipped hedges, trimmed green grass, pretty flowers, shady trees and a sense of routine, order and pride.
Schools have never been easy places for children, that is known. Teachers have been grumpy since time immemorial, and children learn to navigate that terrain in their own ways. However, there is a minimum requirement for dignity and many of our public schools no longer offer that dignity to our children.
Under these circumstances, parents are perfectly within their rights to lockdown schools and demand effective and urgent action from the state.
But, where has the state been as over 12 000 children face this meltdown? Nowhere to be seen. There is absolutely not one figure of authority either in provincial or national government who has taken the public into their confidence to say: "We are sorry your children are suffering, this is the plan, this is how we must walk forward with this mess."
In 2011 Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga instituted a constitutional take-over of the Eastern Cape education department. Frankly, it was a publicity stunt, an ill-informed crisis management strategy. The root causes of the problem – corruption, union politicking and tenderpreneurship in the department were not addressed.
Although the organisation I work for was sceptical of this now famous Section 100, we nevertheless compelled her to go to court to ensure that it would work. We were on weak footing because, on paper, her lawyers insisted they had the means to make it work. But in real life, we knew their technical arguments were a joke.
Over 16 schools have shutdown, we await the promises of Section 100 to trickle down. The latest meltdown has been a long time coming, aren't they always?
One usually ends off a piece like this with some kind of "should" or "ought".
But at this point it is futile. There is nothing to be done or said as we watch these adults witness portions of the public schooling system break off and disintegrate.
No doubt schooling will be restored, but if I have the choice or the money, my child will never sit in a school that suffers these problems, and no child should have to.