There are useful lessons to learn from the generation of the 1986 emergency

Last Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that public schools will close again, this time for four weeks. The president said it had been hard to reach consensus but the cabinet had taken the decision after growing calls for schools to be closed because of the rise in the number of Covid-19 infections. 

Grade 12 learners will take a week’s break and grade 7s two weeks. 

Ramaphosa mentioned that the decision had been reached after the department of basic education had consulted more than 60 organisations, including teachers unions, school governing body (SGB) associations, civil society structures and the Council of Education Ministers. 

In all her addresses during this time, Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga has never missed an opportunity to announce that her department had consulted “widely” before arriving at a decision. 

After Ramaphosa’s address, the department sent out a statement that listed all the organisations consulted. 

Teacher unions and some of the bodies, such as principals’ associations and independent schools associations, get their mandate from their members and represent those views in these meetings. 

SGB associations also sit in on these meetings. These are the people that are there to represent the interest of the parents. But who do these guys get their orders from? Where do they get the views that they present to these meetings? Are we sure they articulate in a crystal clear way the views of parents? 

I am a parent with a child in school, and I am surrounded by many other people who are parents with school-going children. I have never participated in any SGB association survey or been consulted about my views regarding schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have served on an SGB but I have never been exposed to these school governing body associations, and therefore I am curious to know where and how they get their mandate, particularly at this time. 

In 1986 during the State of Emergency, parents, learners and teachers organised to discuss the status of schooling at that time. The Soweto Parents Crisis Committee was formed as was the Mangaung Parents Action Committee in Bloemfontein and the Daveyton Students Committee — to name just a few. Parents, teachers and learners held meetings countrywide to discuss schooling during those troubled times. I do not think anyone felt that they were robbed of an opportunity to voice their views.

In January 1986 a national education conference was held at University of Witwatersrand, according to the Weekly Mail, where delegates representing groups from around the country were present. This meeting, which was also attended by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa and Reverend Frank Chikane, reached a number of resolutions that they took to the department of education and training. 

Granted, that generation of parents, teachers and learners was fighting a different battle. They were not fighting an invisible virus and the government was not trying to protect them. Gatherings were banned but for a very different reason.

But the beautiful lesson about that time is that people organised and came up with ideas of how schooling could be tackled. Parents had a say in the education of their children, and the voices of learners were heard. 

Who is representing the views of the learners in these Covid-19 meetings about schooling? The future of learners is being discussed without them being part of finding solutions.

Parents are also bystanders who only wait to hear from the government what the next decision is with regard to education during this pandemic. They air their views and frustrations on social media and that is as far as it goes. 

Today’s parents and learners need to consider the experiences and solutions of the 1986 generation to see how they can be applied or adapted to this current Covid-19 context. It cannot be that the main stakeholders in education are bystanders and have no say on important decisions that affect their lives.

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

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