/ 7 February 2008

Lessons to be learned

According to a Finweek report last week, South African education is in crisis mode. The report reveals a serious skills shortage and a lack of resources, and says that more than half-a-million people were ejected from school with any passing certificate.

Last year’s report by Education Minister Naledi Pandor said that less than half of the 675 132 learners who started school in 1999 actually made it to matric. Of the 564 775 matriculants who wrote the year-end exam last year, more than 200 000 failed.

Part of the blame can be attributed to teachers: in 1999 only half of the country’s maths and science teachers had tertiary qualifications in these subjects. Poor remuneration also seems to be a problem. Between 1999 and 2004, an average of only 4,4% of matriculants achieved mathematics passes adequate for gaining entry into university to study natural sciences.

However, parents must take the lion’s share of blame. It seems many parents take only a cursory interest in their child’s education. How else to explain the massive failure rate?

Up to 1 500 Zimbabwean refugees were arrested in a church in central Johannesburg last week, in what police termed a ‘sustainable crime-combat operations”. The police officers who conducted the raid say they were “legally authorised to eradicate criminal elements from the district and building”.

Central Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn and several refugees have complained that they were abused and pushed around by the police. While a certain amount of force may well be necessary in conducting such a large operation, it seems the police may have got carried away.

“I saw them assault people as they took them away in their vans,” the bishop said at the time. “One of them kicked a bottle at me and pushed me. I am able to identify those who pushed me. One of them said I am a disgrace to the church for allowing these people to come in.”

For many of the refugees, this church, across the road from Joubert Park, is their only hope in the big city. Many say they are appalled by the crime, and but for their penurious situation, would far prefer to be back home. The church provides shelter — even if it is only a stair on which to curl up — and a daily, affordable meal.

For his part, Gauteng community safety minister Firoz Cachalia expressed his “deep concern” at the allegations against the police officers, but appears not to be backing down.

“In order to be effective in fighting crime, all our police officers have to uphold the Constitution and behave in a professional manner at all times. We all agree that the police have an important role to play in fighting crime, protecting people and enforcing the laws of our country, which includes the immigration laws,” he said.

These refugees, and thousands like them, remain stuck between law enforcement (and a forced trip back home) and the charity of people like Verryn who look past the paperwork and see fellow humans in need.

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