Refugees ‘barred’ from schooling

Many refugee Somali parents are not sending their children to South Africa’s public schools because they are intimidated by the official processes required to get their children into school and because of the discrimination foreign pupils frequently experienced there.

Abdulkadir Khaleif, a representative of the Somali Association of South Africa in the Western Cape, told the Mail & Guardian that the documents schools required before admitting Somali children had often “been lost because of the war” back home.

He was one of about 80 participants at a two-day workshop in Cape Town last week held by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation. It was the first of three workshops convened by the centre as its year-long study of the education rights of refugees, immigrants and migrants nears completion (“Lifting the veil on migrants and myths”, M&G, October 28 2011).


Project co-ordinator Salim Vally, Yana van Leeve from the Legal Resources Centre, Makhosandile Ndzuso from the Western Cape education department and Charlene Little from Maitland High School. (David Harrison)

Neville Alexander, anti-apartheid icon and director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, said in his keynote address that there was a “huge gap between policy and the practice of that policy” in South Africa.

“Policies must also reflect the changing context and address ways of achieving quality public education for all — Often to do this we must unite and continue the struggle,” Alexander said.

No “quick-fix solutions”
He cautioned against “quick-fix solutions” and exhorted workshop participants to “synthesise a concrete programme of action based on careful analysis, [one] that unites the poor and marginalised regardless of national origin”.

Braam Hanekom, the co-ordinator of People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty, told the workshop that some asylum-seekers “do not think that they can access education in the absence of documentation”. He spoke out against the “criminalisation and demonisation” of refugees and migrants and how this diminished education rights.

The Legal Resource Centre has acted on similar policy-related issues. The centre’s Yana van Leeve told the workshop how a father of five from Somalia recently struggled to get his children into a school that said he lacked the correct documents — but it “took a single letter” from the centre to get the school to admit the children.

“We shouldn’t need [even] a single letter from lawyers to say this person doesn’t need refugee documents. They [schools] should know that,” Van Leeve said. “In terms of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, everyone has a right to education. They can’t refuse you [admission] just because you don’t have [a] report card” — that can be replaced with a parent’s sworn affidavit.

And schools can “still admit a learner without a birth certificate”, Van Leeve said. Parents of asylum-seekers can also apply for the same fee exemptions the law guaranteed to South African citizens.

Van Leeve presented a copy of the 1996 National Education Policy Act, which indicated that pupils only needed a completed application form, documents proving that a parent or child had applied to home affairs to legalise their presence in the country and proof that the child had been immunised against communicable diseases.

Misconceptions and false asumptions
Salim Vally, the co-ordinator of the research project, referred to “misconceptions and false assumptions” about refugees and migrants “often promoted by or ignored by those in powerful positions who sometimes even violate official policy”.

Makhosandile Ndzuzo, the Western Cape education department’s director of institutional management and governance planning, invited refugees to complain directly to the department whenever they suspected policy violation. “If a school turns you down — there’s an appeal mechanism that you can launch directly with the [provincial education minister],” he said. “It’s always a test for the system to meet [its] policies.”

But Ivor Baatjes, a researcher at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, echoing Vally, said that access to “appeal mechanisms, state structures and officials is not an easy process, often time-consuming and, for migrants, daunting and intimidating”.

For Fwamba Mukole, a social counsellor at the Cape Town Refugee Centre, the need was to educate teachers and principals that children had a “fundamental right” to education under the Children’s Act and the international Convention on the Rights of the Child that South Africa had ratified. “It doesn’t matter if they are documented or undocumented.”

Charlene Little, deputy principal of Maitland High School, said that the school had opened its doors to refugees. “It’s rare for us to turn children away,” Little said.

The school accommodated French-speaking pupils, running an extra language programme from 3pm to 5.30pm daily.

Lack of state support
But Little and Caroline Foubister, who teaches extra English classes at the school, lamented the lack of state support they received.


Lumumba Chia, a documentary filmmaker, listens to a panel discussion. (David Harrison)

The workshop heard that several non-governmental organisations had been established in recent years in the Western Cape to help refugees access education. The Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy, for instance, provided skills training, including English lessons, for asylum-seekers and refugees to prepare them for employment and to enter further education and training colleges.

For its part, the Cape Town Refugee Centre encouraged children of school-going age to attend school and assisted with their fees, according to the centre’s director, Christina Henda. She urged participants to assist with the enrolment of learners.

Centre for Education Rights and Transformation researcher Kara Mackay reported that language was a significant barrier to education and said that teachers at the school “expressed a real need” for dictionaries, particularly English to French, isiXhosa to English, and Afrikaans to English.

There was general agreement among participants that South Africa’s inherent inequality meant the country’s own poor citizens were also victims of a failing system. Ashley Louw of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign said that, because lack of access to quality public education was a working-class struggle, locals and refugees “should come together for a programme of action”.

But Sibongile Kwazi, deputy secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union in the Western Cape, said there was a “dilemma”: Would a principal in a school with insufficient classes “prioritise an immigrant child while we have locals in the waiting list”?

“Schools from disadvantaged communities would never think of taking foreign learners when we’re sitting with a class-size problem,” Kwazi told the M&G. “We need more classes.”

The doors to learning should be opened to everyone
The union’s stance was that the doors to learning should be opened to everyone because “excluding foreign nationals will only compound their problems” in the country and also “perpetuate crime, inequality and poverty”, Kwazi said.

Farrell Hunter, a promoter of adult education, called on participants to support community-based informal popular education “working in tandem with formal schooling”.
Anthea Velapi from the Children’s Movement explained to an appreciative audience how her organisation supported those attacked during the xenophobia outbreak in 2008.

Also from the Children’s Movement, Amanda Folomane recited a poignant poem recalling the attacks against not only South Africans who spoke a language not familiar to many but also “my sisters and brothers from other African countries”.

To fight against xenophobia, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign’s Gary Hartzenberg proposed a children-led education march that would unite South Africans and foreign nationals. “We’ll mobilise our kids, they’ll mobilise their kids and we’ll march together. That’s how we’ll cross Afrophobia,” Hartzenberg said.

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