Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Xenophobia’s shameful assault on schoolchildren

COMMENT
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

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Zondo commission: 10 unanswered questions

Zuma went to jail rather than testify. Some who did told blatant lies. Who decided Cabinet appointments and how much money was carried out of Saxonwold?

Local elections: Water tops the agenda in Limpopo’s dry villages

People in the Fetakgomo Tubatse local municipality, who have to collect water from Motse River, are backing independent candidates because they’re tired of parties’ election promises

More top stories

COP26 touted to resolve long standing issues on climate debt

Only 16% of losses in South Africa from weather-related disasters in the past four decades were covered by insurers, leaving governments and communities unable to build back

Conservation boosts cattle farmers

By adopting sound grazing practices livestock owners get access to markets in a foot-and-mouth disease red zone near the Kruger National Park

Most climate science is written by white men

In deciding how the world responds to the climate crisis, policymakers rely on research that tends to be written predominantly by men in the Global North

Zondo commission: 10 unanswered questions

Zuma went to jail rather than testify. Some who did told blatant lies. Who decided Cabinet appointments and how much money was carried out of Saxonwold?
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×