/ 17 March 2023

Floods have a devastating effect on rural schooling

Floods Sa
A child walks through floodwaters after heavy rainfall in Parys town of Orange Free state, South Africa on February 19, 2023. Floods have affected schools in rural areas and townships. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Heavy rains have recently affected parts of South Africa, but not enough attention has been paid to the effects of floods on public schools in the townships and rural areas of South Africa. 

Floods have destroyed school infrastructure and the disrupted educational services for learners in disadvantaged areas. Without functioning schools, there cannot be class time, which means the educational, cultural and socio-political importance of schooling is lost. 

There is no sign of the government having long-term plans for disaster management, safeguarding of public schools, building durable school infrastructure and safe locations for the continuation of teaching and learning, should infrastructure be damaged. The unpreparedness and lack of urgency on the part of the government around this crisis shows it doesn’t see the importance of schooling in black communities. 

Because it is unprepared, the government has resorted to short-term measures to help victims, for example, food parcels, temporary shelters and container classrooms. 

Some politicians take advantage of this because it provides opportunities for their own personal gain. Tender accumulation is selfish and short-sighted and it is fuelled by a culture of consumption. People seek to make profits at the expense of poor children who are desperate for education. 

There is no denying that local governments have attempted to assist people by organising teams to evacuate those who are affected to safety. But the floods have revealed something very concerning about the planning of our cities and towns. The drainage systems are inadequate, which means (among other things) poor town and city planning. In some cases, what is at fault is low-functioning valves, which are meant to be purchased and maintained by the government, to avoid problems when a storm hits. 

American environmentalist Professor Wonmin Sohn wrote in a 2020 study that well-designed drainage systems can prevent major damage to urban infrastructure and personal property, even during severe disasters. This shows up the weaknesses in local government in South Africa. Flood damage to public infrastructure, and the resultant damage to local economies, cannot be regarded as an unexpected natural phenomenon, but rather should be viewed as the local government’s disregard of its public duty. 

On 13 February, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster to enable an intensive response to widespread floods. But the solutions provided by the government were temporary, which shows a lack of urgency. From the response, one would presume we were living in times when there was no way to monitor the weather so that safety measures could be put into place in advance of disasters. 

We cannot be blind to the fact that the low-lying areas are the worst affected by floods. This often means those with houses on the outskirts of towns and cities bear the brunt. This takes us back to the aftereffects of apartheid with its mission to place black people far from areas considered safe. One cannot ignore the historical fact that the apartheid planning of urban areas has resulted in black people residing on the margins of cities and being vulnerable to floods. This has not changed post-1994. 

Furthermore, while schooling in the privileged areas of towns and cities resumed smoothly at the beginning of the year, this was not the case for some schools in the rural and township areas. 

Township and rural learners and teachers have to contend with muddy, almost non-existent apartheid-era roads, which collapsed during the floods, making it impossible to get to schools. Water damage to classrooms meant no furniture and the loss of books and stationery, along with school records. 

These are the same schools which have been waiting to get electricity from the government since 1994. Many don’t have the means to back up records electronically or the resources to hold online classes to ensure learners do not fall behind. 

The rebuilding of schools tends to be slow as a result of the poor relations between the education departments and local governments, and disaster management is sometimes not in sync with the urgency of protecting schools from natural disasters or rebuilding them once they are damaged. 

All of these things are signs of a state that does not have a long-term awareness of education’s value to the future of our country. 

The government keeps normalising the provision of containers disguised as classrooms for teaching and learning instead of building durable infrastructure. 

Our public schools are in need of permanent and more sustainable solutions to life-threatening situations. Long-term, sustainable and strategic interventions must be implemented by the government to avoid or reduce the effect of floods on schooling. Communities have a responsibility to monitor these measures and ensure they are done. 

Oyisa Sondlo is a PhD sociology candidate at the University of the Free State.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.