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SA’s children hold the power of transformation

South Africa’s education system is a dual one. On the one side 25% of schools offer a high-quality education to mostly privileged citizens and the other 75% offers the kind of education that won’t get you into university, and won’t equip you with the skills to choose a job that involves anything more than basic labour. 

As an education reporter it’s my job to visit places both well known and obscure, to show our readers what this dual system is like as experienced by all of South Africa’s citizens. 

I have seen that those experiences are strikingly different – depending on whether the school is in an urban or rural area, which province it is in and what the pupils’ socio-economic backgrounds are. 

This observation is not new. Experts, academics, activists and journalists have made the same observation many times in national and international media. Their message is the same: education in South Africa is failing millions of young people every year. 

Citizens and governments do different things with this information. Some citizens, acknowledging the importance of education in uplifting people, sacrifice their own wellbeing to research, protest, and create awareness about the deplorable learning conditions of many of the 12-million pupils in South Africa. 

Others feel pity and carry on working towards the attainment of their own, personal goals. 

Some governments question policy, engage with civil society and make informed decisions about how the education budget is spent. Other politicians make sweeping yet empty promises to citizens to garner votes. 

The people who have been selected to appear in this section of the 200 Young South Africans 2014 are mostly regular South African citizens and some government officials. 

They all know that education is a vehicle out of poverty and a weapon against mounting inequality, but unlike so many people in positions of power, these nominees don’t just talk about this, they also take action.

Tebogo Sephakgamela and other recipients of the award, such as Lwando Mzandisi, did not go to schools that had all the resources that are crucial to getting an education. They didn’t have all the teachers they needed, or textbooks. They had to walk long distances to get to their schools and when they got home at night it was not always to a hot meal. 

Sephakgamela, who lives in rural Limpopo, spends much of his time and money hitching rides or catching taxis so he can get to schools to check if they have the textbooks they need. Mzandisi lives in Khayelitsha – a township in Cape Town whose residents live in different conditions to their city centre neighbours because of a large discrepancy in basic service provision by the government. He knows all about inequality and devotes his energy to organising campaigns to raise money and awareness about the learning conditions of the disadvantaged pupils there. 

Gabrielle Wills and others, such as Jason Brickhill, came from privileged backgrounds of top-quality education and economic security. Instead of building their own wealth, as they surely could have done by taking well-paid jobs in the private sector, they went in a different direction. 

Wills used her position to raise money for and mentor disadvantaged pupils as well as play a leadership role as the governing body chairperson at an under-resourced school. 

Brickhill shirked the corporate law firm life and the paycheques that come with it so that he could help others to use the courts to make sure, for example, that hundreds of teachers in the Eastern Cape get paid their salaries and thousands of pupils have desks and chairs.

The challenges that all these people are facing might seem insurmountable at times because there are no quick fixes for a system whose inequalities are rooted in the centuries-old oppression of black people by white people. 

Some of this oppression was legislated and South Africa is still in the midst of its struggle to rid itself of this legacy. It’s a legacy that some might say does not exist anymore, post-1994 democracy, but if anyone has been into the schools that I and the people in this section have been into, they will know they are wrong. Thousands of schools still look like and operate with the same inadequate resources as they did 100 years ago. 

Some of them are made of mud, some of them do not have toilets, others are so overcrowded that 120 pupils are forced to squeeze into one classroom.

Somewhere along the timeline of these people’s lives they became aware that those learning conditions would have the effect of consigning millions of young people to a life of poverty, limited choice and potential crime and disease. This could not happen. Not after so many had fought so hard for a democracy. 

Empowerment through collective strength 
The action these people took is exceptional in its selflessness and compassion. What strength and vision was in them to move them towards action? 

You could say that they are a unique and special kind of people. But could it be they have the kind of strength and vision we all have inside us? Is the flame they have inside them that burned for justice not the same flame that is innate in every human ignited in some as a result of chance but smothered in others through the compounding of everyday violations of dignity?

Some of the people in this section knew that the Constitution specifically protects the right to a basic education for all South Africans. Others knew from consuming media that their plight was not isolated or insignificant. They all believed in themselves enough to put some plans on hold, take risks on others, pick themselves up when they made mistakes and keep going. They might have had a role model to draw inspiration from. They might have had someone believing in them, bolstering them, and offering advice and support when the going got tough. They might not even have drawn much on the support from others, but rather relied on their own agency. 

But many of the pupils I have spoken to, especially in rural areas, simply do not know how wronged they are by the learning conditions they endure every day. Disempowered and marginalised, they do not know the power of their own agency. This is where the problem lies. If all pupils were at least aware of their rights and aware of what exactly constitutes a basic education they would have a frame of reference to hold their own learning conditions up to. 

If they tapped into their agency, if they were listened to, if they were included in the discussions around solutions for the education crisis, then their power would increase further. 

If they were given the resources to engage and organise, their voices would be so loud it would be impossible to silence them. This is where South Africans need to lean in – to the potential that young people hold. We need to acknowledge young people’s voices and agency. We need to acknowledge that they might not have the body of experience that a 50-year-old has, but they have the kind of invaluable experience of someone who feels the everyday experience of a leaking roof on their skin. 

Let us respect that these young people have ideas and solutions for the education crisis, which has the most immediate effect on them. Let us listen to their ideas. Let us include them in the planning for a better education system. Let us ask them what help they need, and let us always prioritise the thing that will help them when we can’t – empowerment through the acquisition of skills and knowledge. 

If we do this, we might grow a generation where everybody sees injustice and is equipped to do something to change it.

To view the full 200 Young South Africans’ profiles, click here.

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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