/ 31 May 2013

ANC has not built one mud school

The basic education minister is 'attending to problems and opening new schools'.
The basic education minister is 'attending to problems and opening new schools'.

Often there are things we let go in our democratic space – itself a hard-won product of the democratic struggles led by the ANC and won with the people against the forces of reaction, backwardness and sheer racism. This is in the interest of free speech, but there are utterances we must surely confront. They masquerade as poetry, said to be for some poor little black boy or girl lost in "schools without proper infrastructure, books or decent teachers".

Such is the cynical rant by Marlene van Niekerk published on the Mail & Guardian letters page ("Motshekga's name is mud", May 17) – a poem, it appears, for hapless native children of the "wild" Eastern Cape.

Like little Calibans on Prospero's island, they are incapable of accessing her poem in English, so she tells us condescendingly, with contempt and arrogance, in a self-righteous tone not unlike that of the erstwhile colonial writers: "I will see to it that it gets translated into isiXhosa." A round of applause, I would imagine, should follow.

Of course, it's a fact of history that, whereas a chosen few "like lambs rejoiced" in the best-elected schools, the majority was condemned to wretchedness in homelands "dry as death", such as the Ciskei and the Transkei.

Maybe I'm taking Van Niekerk too seriously, dignifying an insult to the innocent with this reply. We need not remind her, for indeed she knows, how disingenuous she is. As far as I know, no government of ours set up one mud school anywhere in the country after apartheid.

In the old country, our people, arising from neglect and ridicule at the hands of the racist rulers, set up "schools without proper infrastructure" just so the African child could learn and therefore read some English without translations into isiXhosa. Besides, not every child in the Eastern Cape speaks isiXhosa. Also, with the revised curriculum, children in public schools are taught English from the foundation phase onwards. Some children come from families speaking English at home, including children of those teachers deemed less than "decent" by Van Niekerk. We do have great teachers in public schools. Some did study at universities such as Stellenbosch. And, yes, some are "fortunate" enough to have books in their homes.

The 2013-2014 basic education budget vote speech makes it quite clear that what the democratic government has achieved in the 19 years of freedom recalled by Van Niekerk (though with amnesia in respect of centuries of colonial pillage) is a first for this country. We see Minister Angie Motshekga in and out of the Eastern Cape, attending to problems and opening new schools. She does not depend, as Van Niekerk does, on what she's "told" by others.

On May 22, she opened a new school in Mthatha, Nobantu, built by government at a cost of R12-million as part of the programme to replace inappropriate structures. In April, she opened two schools in one day, also in the Eastern Cape. Many are to follow. By 2012, about 114-million full-colour national workbooks had been distributed to schools across all provinces, including the Eastern Cape.

We know that more than eight million children in over 82% of public schools are in no-fee schools. The conditional grant for the national school nutrition programme, to ensure nutritious lunches for children, not "malebese" and "jabula soup", has increased by R266.6-million in 2013-2014 to R5.173-billion. If this isn't "urgent action" by Van Niekerk's standards, then nothing will be.

Honesty and a modicum of respect for others, different or otherwise, is all we should ask as South Africans. Our history we cannot alter or deny. "We are khaki" with experience, from colonisation and apartheid to democracy, justice and freedom.

In Van Niekerk's poem she takes the liberty of insulting the person of the president, showing inhumanity to the very people whom he represents. It's easy for one who has never experienced poverty to derive pleasure from the denial of educational rights of others. – David Hlabane, communications unit, department of basic education