Shamed by our schools

Douglas Gibson says social media outrage has once again been directed to where it is least needed

Education: South Africa’s shameful human rights failure

The Editor of the Saturday Star wrote a searing article headlined “Our Schools of Shame” on 10 September. Dealing with the shameful deficiencies of many of our schools, it depicted the plight of thousands of pupils whose educational needs and human rights are ignored. The article deserved a major reaction but I have seen little if any.

A few weeks before that, the media gave vast coverage day after day to the controversy about the codes of conduct at a few schools like Pretoria Girls’ High that prevented girls from wearing their hair the way they felt entitled to. The reaction in the social media was often hysterical and the schools were accused of violating the girls’ human rights. 

This human rights issue received top-level attention from among others, Mr Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng MEC for Education.  He rushed over to Pretoria to take personal charge of the situation and ensured the adaptation of the school code of conduct that was indeed in some respects outdated and insensitive to the changing demographics of the school. 

As a result, girls will be able to wear their hair in Afro styles and this great school can get on with providing an excellent education to children fortunate enough to be learners there, as it has done for around a hundred years. 

Now that the young women learners at this school have successfully defended their own human rights, perhaps they can be encouraged to look around them and insist that Mr Lesufi and others do something about the human rights of the tens of thousands of learners whose human rights deprivation extends somewhat further than hairdos.

We have 569 schools without electricity, 171 without any water supply and 68 without sanitation.  We are told that many have only partial electricity and sanitation and some still operate with pit latrines.  Where is the public outrage?

The extraordinary coverage given to the Pretoria story, the reverberations at several other privileged middle class government schools elsewhere, and the almost complete silence about the hopelessly unequal education  given to poor children in this country tell us a lot about South Africa and about the politicians tasked with looking after our children’s education.

Many powerful politicians get misty eyed when they refer to the “poorest of the poor” whose pain they feel. In every forum, from the smallest local council right up to parliament and at every election rally one hears repeatedly about the concern for the poorest of the poor. We also hear repeatedly about pro-poor policies.  If this is genuine concern, why is there so little concrete achievement and so little progress?

 Why do we, as voters, swallow all this guff?  Why do we not insist that those who govern us must carry out their constitutional mandate?  Schools with no sanitation and no water destroy the human dignity of their learners.  Vast and unacceptable classroom overcrowding undermines the right of all children to a basic education.  If we are honest, we will admit that this situation affects black children and hardly any white children.  It is not fair and decent that this should continue.

This is not new; we have always lived with unacceptable physical conditions affecting black children and mainly those in rural areas.  In 1994 we all agreed as a nation that we would take hands and accept the equality of all and foster the rights of each of us.  Why is it that a generation later our efforts have been so poor?

A social movement called “Equal Education” consisting largely of young campaigners has worked tirelessly to promote what its name implies.  It has demonstrated, petitioned the authorities and taken them to court, resulting in the publication by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga of legally binding Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure.

By 29 November this year, every public school in South Africa must have access to water, electricity, ablution facilities, security personnel and the internet.  The class size for learners must be 40 or less.  Thereafter, all schools must have science laboratories and areas for physical education.  Clearly, these legally binding targets will not be met. The General Secretary of Equal Education, Tshepo Motsepe says, “The impact will be dire.  People are being denied basic dignity and rights, basic education.”

The department’s Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI) has put in a major effort, especially in the Eastern Cape, but Equal Education says that if the department does not meet its November deadline, which it will not, the advocacy group will release private information about contractors and officials who are benefiting disproportionately from ASIDI.  Equal Education is wrong here; it should release that information now.  Let’s subject contractors and officials to public scrutiny – that is the way to stir people into action.

In addition, ordinary people who are committed to the values of the constitution and want to see the young people of our country given a fair chance in life must start raising their voices.  It is shameful and cannot be accepted that more than twenty years into our democracy tens of thousands of children are denied what is their right and what is society’s obligation: reasonably equal treatment in educational infrastructure. 

Of course, the shocking disparities in nutrition, in health care and in teaching standards also demand attention but that is the subject for another day.  Mr Lesufi and the other people so concerned about the human rights of our children must start delivering; a little less grandstanding and publicity-seeking and a little more quiet determination to make a real difference would go a long way to proving that we do care about the poorest of the poor.  

A former Opposition Chief Whip and ambassador to Thailand, Douglas Gibson is a writer and professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter: Douglas Gibson @dhmgibson

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.