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Xenophobia’s shameful assault on schoolchildren

As the nation reels from more xenophobic violence, another equally egregious form of institutionalised xenophobia played out far from the glare of public attention. It was directed at schoolchildren, compounding the violation and infringing on the basic right to education.

A letter from Eastleigh Primary School in Johannesburg, claiming to be written under the instruction of the department of home affairs, states: “All learner’s documents need to be up to date. If any foreign learner arrives here on Monday we will phone the police to come and collect your child and you can collect your child at the police station.”

Last week the Mail & Guardian exposed how schools near the Mozambique and Swaziland borders in Mpumalanga are refusing to admit hundreds, possibly thousands, of learners because they don’t have South African birth certificates and identity documents.

Yet these children of Mozambican and Swazi parents were born in South Africa. Children were booted out of primary and high schools, some of them in matric, in the Nkomazi area that includes Jeppe’s Reef, Buffelspruit and Komatipoort areas. Piet Retief is also affected.

A principal said a home affairs department official had warned schools they’d be fined if they admitted these children. Mpumalanga’s education MEC, Reginah Mhaule, said she didn’t know about the threat.

The South African Human Rights Commission became aware of the letter from Eastleigh Primary School on February 24 this year. It made it into the public domain, but Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba denied the department’s was involved.

Xenophobia is an irrational fear of foreigners. This prejudice against “outsiders” leads to immigrants being made scapegoats for social ills, crime and unemployment.

Our Constitution, globally seen as one of the most progressive constitutions, guarantees rights to all in South Africa, including documented and undocumented foreigners. The recent rise in xenophobia has caused distress to many migrants and stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of ubuntu contained in the preamble to our Constitution: “We, the people of South Africa … believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

No parent should have to face the prospect that their child could face arrest for exercising their rights.

For many migrants, asylum seekers and refugees — as for many South Africans — education provides a pathway out of hardship, breaking the cycle of socioeconomic exclusion.

Upon receipt of a complaint related to the letter, the commission urgently contacted the Gauteng department of education, which informed the commission that the department was aware of the letter. The commission requested that the department urgently issue a directive to Eastleigh Primary School to withdraw the letter. The department reacted swiftly, ensuring parents received the correct information in a notice on the school’s app. More importantly, the department took steps to ensure that the affected children could return to school.

In the Mpumalanga case, Mhaule said she’s discuss it with the minister of basic education at an education ministers meeting this week.

South African law is unequivocal in its protection of the right to basic education for all children in our country, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, social origin or documented status. Undocumented children may not be refused admission to a school owing to a lack of documentation and schools must enrol such learners and assist them to obtain the necessary documentation.

Although the swift action of the department should be lauded, it is immensely worrying that such a letter — targeting the most vulnerable members of our society — ever saw the light of day. Schools are primarily sites of learning, but are also important spaces for social development of children from various backgrounds.

Section 28 of the Constitution provides that the best interests of a child shall be paramount in all matters concerning the child. Schools, therefore, have a clear obligation to adopt reasonable measures to avoid painful psychological trauma to minor learners.

In an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, special pains must be taken by all actors in the education sector to ensure these rights are protected. It is incumbent on educators, school governing bodies and parents to develop a culture of respect for basic rights and values.

It is important that schools realise that they have to take the lead in shaping thought and public mores. How do we as a nation ever overcome xenophobia if schools fail to lead by example? — Additional reporting by Prega Govender

Advocate Andre Gaum is a commissioner responsible for the basic education portfolio at the South African Human Rights Commission

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