Western Cape education MEC’s battle with Equal Education could have an end in sight

The frosty relationship between Western Cape education MEC, Debbie Schäfer, and members of Equal Education (EE) looks set to be thawed after she agreed to meet with them next Monday.

Schäfer fired off several angry tweets last month slamming EE after about 80 learners held a peaceful protest outside her home following her department’s failure to respond to the movement’s social audit findings into school safety and sanitation.

EE told the Mail & Guardian that Schäfer’s office had confirmed on Wednesday that she would meet them for an hour.

During the protest on June 30, an infuriated Schäfer tweeted: “I won’t accept things on an illegal march to private home that you have not given me at my office.”

In another tweet, she said: “district directors say a whole lot of pieces of paper they are still working through! Mostly vague allegations.”

Not to be outdone, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille also fired off a salvo of tweets, including: “Equal Education never deals with the biggest challenge facing education: many unaccountable and absent Sadtu educators, absent fathers.”

In another tweet, Zille said: “I firmly believe that Equal Education has done nothing about the CORE problems in education except exacerbate them.”

The tweets from both were a direct response to EE’s march to Schäfer’s Bergvliet home. She did not meet with the protesters and, in a video posted on Twitter by EE, she could be seen walking out of her front gate to her car.

EE members had handed the findings of its social audit to Schäfer’s department in April and were furious after it failed to respond to them.

At the time of the sit-in, EE said: “We have gone to great lengths to ensure that the department has the data needed to ensure that the safety crisis in Western Cape schools is urgently and adequately addressed. Their lack of response and the MEC’s dishonesty in dealing with us is shameful.”

EE went on to say that the impact that issues of safety have on a young person’s capacity to learn and on a teacher’s capacity to educate were unquestionable.

“Yet, for more than two months, our emails to the WCED [Western Cape education department] have been ignored, and we have received no requests for meetings or any engagement on the facts of the audit.”

It was also outraged by Schäfer’s claim that they had only handed over hard-copy audit forms filled with “vague allegations”.

Some of the findings of the social audit in which 244 schools were surveyed included:

  • Corporal punishment takes place at 83% of schools with four out of five learners reporting that teachers used sticks, batons, pipes and other objects to hit them;
  • There had been drug/alcohol use in the past three months at one out of three schools;
  • One out of six schools had a gang presence in the past three months;
  • More than half the schools had a robbery in the past year; and
  • There was a case of vandalism at one out of four schools in the past year.

Nishal Robb, EE’s head in Western Cape, said they were hoping to use Monday’s meeting, among other things, to clear up claims made by Schäfer about the EE and the social audit, “which the MEC herself knows not to be true”.

“The first purpose of the meeting will be to put to rest the conflict [between herself and EE].”

Still smarting from Schäfer’s claim that EE had handed over “a whole lot of pieces of paper”, Robb said they had not only handed over hard copies but also a very comprehensive set of data.

“One of the district directors had asked that we send the spreadsheet by email beforehand so that she [Schäfer] could analyse it because she was interested in engaging with what we did.

“EE members are disappointed at the conduct of the MEC and her dismissiveness towards the social audit.”

He said he would also be hoping to get a sense from Schäfer on how her department planned to respond to new issues raised by EE on school safety.

Robb confirmed that they held a “productive” meeting with the head of the department for education in Western Cape, Penny Vinjevold, last week.

Schäfer’s spokeswoman, Jessica Shelver, confirmed that the MEC would be meeting with EE next week to establish a “healthy working relationship” between EE and the MEC’s office.

“It is also to gauge why we were not sent the report after requesting it. Giving a report to a district director doesn’t automatically mean that the MEC is going to see it.”

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