Lesufi's chirp must be made a reality for South Africa's education system

Equal Education members outside the Basic Education in Pretoria protesting against the appalling conditions at township and rural schools. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Equal Education members outside the Basic Education in Pretoria protesting against the appalling conditions at township and rural schools. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

“We won. We defeated apartheid planning, thanks Concourt. 

Our schools from now on belongs  to all South Africans, not the privileged few.”

This tweet was sent by Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, who has 23 603 followers, immediately after the Constitutional Court ruled last Friday in favour of his department on the thorny issue of school admissions.

One newspaper was reported as saying that he made a Facebook comment to the effect that the judgment now “empowered” his department to declare new school-feeder zones, “thus burying the transitional 5km radius”. What is interesting is Lesufi’s choice of the word “empowered” because the court “directed” or, simply put, instructed him to determine the feeder zones for public schools in his province within 12 months. He has gone on record to say his department will comply with the court’s order.

No doubt, thousands of parents, especially those with children from the township schools in the province, breathed a collective sigh of relief after the ruling. Parents, who “cheated the system” by providing false residential addresses so that their children could attend a well-resourced school, will also have been relieved.
Among these is a mother who tricked the Winston Park Primary and the Hillcrest High School, outside Durban, into enrolling her children by providing a false residential address. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there were those parents who took the drastic step of keeping their children at home rather than sending them to a dysfunctional school. But, for many, the implications of this judgment, which is surely a watershed moment, has not yet sunk in. This is an important judgment because the provincial education department has now been forced to draw up fresh regulations on feeder zones.

In terms of the current school admission regulations, pupils living within a 5km radius of a school, or those who have a parent working in the area, have a right to attend that school. These applicants are automatically placed on waiting list A, whereas those from outside the 5km radius are relegated to waiting list B.  Essentially, those on waiting list B would have been pupils from, for example, Soweto, who wanted to attend schools such as Parktown Boys High, Parktown Girls High, Northcliff High, Parkview Junior and Greenside High, to name but a few. Under the current regulations, most of them would have had to attend schools in Soweto.

This is not to say that these schools are providing a substandard education. On the contrary, many offer a top-quality education. Undoubtedly, there are those that are considered to be dysfunctional but, by and large, the only reason parents avoided some of these schools was that they are hopelessly under-resourced and offer little promise of improving their children’s education.  More importantly, in a democracy such as ours, the underlying argument is that parents should be free to send their children to a school of their choice. The current regulations deprived them of that.

One of the vociferous campaigners for the scrapping of the current school feeder zones has been Equal Education (EE), a movement of pupils, parents, teachers and community members. The EE, which was admitted as a friend of the court, has been fiercely opposed to the exclusion of poor pupils from well-resourced schools as a result of geographical location. The thrust of its argument was that the use of geographical location, in other words, the 5km radius requirement, will continue to reinforce racial segregation, as pupils in poor areas cannot access better education opportunities in better-resourced areas.

They summed it up beautifully in their court papers, saying, because geography and race are inextricably linked in Gauteng, “black learners will live in historically black areas. They will fall into the feeder zones for historically black schools that continue to be poor, under-resourced and underperforming”. 

In contrast, the EE maintained, “white learners living in affluent, previously white areas will fall into the feeder zones for historically white privileged schools, creating an admission system that indirectly discriminates on the grounds of race and colour”.  

The EE’s contention was that the current enrolment strategy has seen township schools bursting at the seams whereas some former white schools have been operating with a few pupils in classrooms. The court pointed out that the default feeder zones, the 5km radius requirement, were intended to be transitional. It also alluded to EE’s attack on the constitutional validity of the default feeder zones.  

Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who has recently retired, said in the judgment: “Since the apartheid residential and workplace lines remain firm, the impact of the criteria of the MEC is to prolong and legalise racial exclusion.” 

And, in a line that was certainly music to the ears of the EE, Moseneke said: “There is traction in the contention of the amicus [friend of the court].”

The ball is now firmly in Lesufi’s court. He is in the unenviable position of formulating a new policy for school admissions. It has been argued that geography alone should not be taken into account when making this determination and that other factors need to be considered as well.  He has a year to decide what those factors will be. 

Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardian’s education editor

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