Schools shouldn’t be political bait

NEWS ANALYSIS

Government’s response to protesters burning down schools seems to have taken a different direction. Gauteng MEC of education Panyaza Lesufi tweeted last week: “Forget it if you think we will fix it!” after a primary school in Katlehong, Ekurhuleni municipality, was torched, allegedly by protesters angered by electricity cuts.

He said his department was not going to use resources allocated to another area desperately needing a school to rebuild one that people do not “appreciate”.

Speaking on Radio 702, he said the government has to stand strong against that kind of behaviour because, if it doesn’t, it will continue: “I just feel we cannot tolerate this. We must put an end to it. I am firm on it. We are not going to fix that school. We will take those children and relocate them to other surrounding schools.”

Residents have reportedly denied that they set the two classrooms alight. The department said in a statement that this might be the work of a “rogue element” and will work with residents to apprehend those responsible. But it also reiterated that it does not have the funds to repair the school.

Lesufi’s response is a change in tone to what has been an ongoing problem affecting education. Over the years, schools have been used as bait by disgruntled residents to get government’s attention.

In 2014, 54 schools in the John Taolo Gaetsewe district near Kuruman in the Northern Cape were shut down for three months because residents were demanding a stretch of tar road to connect villages in that area. They alleged that they had raised the issue of a tarred road with government since 2007, but their cries had fallen on deaf ears.

READ MORE: DA lays charges after pupils prevented from attending school

The closure of the schools affected 16 455 children, with some going instead to work on farms in Upington where they could earn a wage of R1 000 a fortnight.

READ MORE: Minister concerned over closure of farm schools

Lucky Kaebis, the deputy secretary of the Joe Morolong Road Forum, told the Sowetan newspaper at the time: “Stopping children from going to school was the only thing we could use to get the government to listen to us.”

For the past four months, several schools in Zebediela, Limpopo, have been shut down, also for a road. This has affected about 3 000 learners and the issue is still not resolved.

In 2016, the South African Human Rights Commission held national investigative hearings into the effect of protests on the right to a basic education. It found that some protesters deliberately target schools with the intention of drawing attention to a problem unrelated to education.

It said: “Undermining basic education through the disruption of schools appears to be an effective mechanism to elicit immediate high-level government reaction. In terms of this reasoning, undermining the right to a basic education is seen as ‘fair game’ and, as a result, the trend is on the increase.”

Last year, the Mail & Guardian reported on how provincial departments have had to spend millions of rands on fixing schools that were burnt down — money which was not budgeted for. In Mpumalanga, for example, more than R10-million had to be spent on six schools.

Provincial departments also have to spend money on temporary camps when learners are barred from attending school. After protests in Vuwani over municipal demarcation changes shut down schools, it cost the Limpopo education department R27-million to set up three such camps.

This solution, however, is usually reserved for matrics — other grades lose out on learning and teaching time if no catch-up plans are put in place.

It costs millions of children, especially those from poor areas, their right to education.

The human rights commission report highlights the complexity of the issue. As a country, we say that we value education, but people, including parents of learners, continue to destroy schools when their demands are not met.

The inefficiency of the state’s response to the plight of the people is what has enabled this kind of behaviour.

By rebuilding schools or providing mobile classrooms, government perpetuates this destructive, costly form of protest.

The statement by Lesufi last week is perhaps the stance the government will be forced to take from now on.

It is also a matter of law. The Schools Act unequivocally says that: “Any other person who, without just cause, prevents a learner who is subject to compulsory attendance from attending a school, is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months.”

It is time the country stopped gambling with the education of our children, especially the poor.

It’s time to act. Whereas government should start listening to people’s needs, citizens who stop children from going to school should face the full might of the law.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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