On Friday at 7:30am the Equal Education members and delegates for the solidarity visit delegation met with officials from the Eastern Cape education department in Mthatha, including its deputy director-general Sithembele Zibi.
We had seen some terrible conditions and had so many questions about the slow improvement of infrastructure and conditions which violated peoples’ right to dignity and a basic education.
Writer Zakes Mda asked why we are in this dire situation and why improvements are not happening. Academic Graeme Bloch expressed the dismay that the rest of the country feels when looking at the education situation in the Eastern Cape. Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos and rights lawyer Cameron McConnachie voiced their concern about the district system and asked about the plan to improve district officers' efficiency. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said that the current system demeans children and teachers. Education analyst Nic Spaull asked where the sense of urgency was among these issues.
In their reply, department officials said they valued the support that Equal Education was giving them on this issue. They spoke about the historical backlogs and financial problems which hinder their work. When asked how much money they would need to improve school infrastructure in the province they said minimum functionality will cost R28-billion, while optimal functionality is R49-billion and pure basic safety is R9-billion.
The delegates left the meeting and started their journey back to East London where they would fly home. Mda and writers Sindiwe Magona and Njabulo Ndebele flew straight to Cape Town to an event at the Book Lounge which let them share their reflections on the solidarity visit with the public. They arrived at the event tired but eager to share their experiences with the packed venue.
The room they walked into was packed to capacity. Some people arrived early to secure seats. Others were standing, kneeling, crowding the doorways and looking in through the windows from the pavement. They had come to hear first-hand what the delegates had seen in the Eastern Cape.
Equal Education’s deputy general secretary Doron Isaacs introduced the delegates and welcomed everyone to the event. People sat around his feet looking up at him as he joked, "We didn’t think anyone would come out on a Friday night!"
Mda told the audience that he had first declined the archbishop’s invitation to join the solidarity visit. "When Archbishop Makgoba invited me to join the delegation I initially declined. It was going to take place at a time when the university I teach at has exams. I had papers to mark, exams to oversee and dissertations to supervise," he said. "But then my wife told me you can’t turn the young people of South Africa down! When they call you, you must go."
Magona was deeply moved by the state of the toilets at Nyangilizwe Senior Secondary School. "What we saw there, if it is not a sin then it is a crime. Those schools aren’t schools — they are health hazards,” she said.
There are 730 students at the school and they share eight dilapidated, smelly pit latrines.
After viewing the toilets, Magona was reduced to tears. She worried about the future. "We are sitting on a volcano and it will explode. What will happen when the children realise they have been conned?" she said.
Ndebele said learners showed great zest for life. At a grassroots level he believed there were hard working people trying to support a failing education system. "In the rural areas there is no shortage of people who want to work and teach. What is missing is a state that supports them," he said.
Mda wrapped up the evening by looking towards South Africa’s future. "I am always encouraged by the strength of civil society in South Africa. I believe civil society will save this country. With young people like this how can you be devastated about South Africa?" he said.
The Solidarity tour saw nine delegates traveling for four days and visiting six desperate Eastern Cape schools. We will now wait for May 15 when Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga will publish the final versions of the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. These regulations, if tangible and connected to deadlines, could transform the lives of learners and teachers not only in the Eastern Cape but across the whole country.
Kate Wilkinson is the media officer at Equal Education and Julie Campbell is a campaigns officer there.