The educational refugees debate: Helen Zille's reply

DA leader says the term of description is both affirmative and empathetic

A note about the education debate

Many people have expressed outrage, and directed all sorts of insults at me, for referring (in a Tweet) to the growing number of children from the Eastern Cape seeking education in the Western Cape as "Education Refugees". The exact wording was (in the 140-character limit of Twitter): "While ECape education collapsed, WC built 30 schools - 22 new, 8 replacement mainly 4 ECape edu refugees. 26 MORE new schools coming."

To say I was surprised by the outcry, is putting it mildly. Here is the nub of my response to one such attack, in a letter to the Cape Times from someone called Yonela Diko ("Zille Too is a Refugee" 25 March 2012). My response to Yonela Diko (et al):

A refugee, in its broad definition, is "someone who seeks refuge" because their rights are denied or suppressed where they live. There are different refugee categories. The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who seeks refuge across a national border (because that has implications for UN funding and other interventions).

People who are forced to relocate within the borders of their own country because their rights are abused or denied are called "Internally Displaced Persons." They are a refugee category - and their refugee status is becoming increasingly recognised internationally.

There is absolutely nothing pejorative or racist in the word "refugee". Indeed it is actually intended to be an affirmation of people and an indictment of the authorities that denied and trampled on their rights in the first place.

Many people are displaced in South Africa, not as a matter of choice, but because they cannot secure basic rights where they live, such as the right to a decent (compulsory) school education. What is to become of the pupils who previously attended some of the 300 schools in the Eastern Cape that closed this week because they are so dilapidated?

This human rights abuse becomes an outrage when one learns that the Eastern Cape Department of Education spent only 28% of its infrastructure budget (in contrast the Western Cape spent 99,5%). Yiko should be railing against incompetent provincial governments that force their children to become educational refugees in order to secure their basic constitutional rights elsewhere.

Yiko is right about my family. My parents were refugees (in the United Nations' narrow definition of the word). Perhaps because I grew up in a refugee family, I don't find the term offensive at all. It resonates empathy for the struggle that people face in re-establishing their lives in a new place. Compare it with the phrase "colonialist of a special type" which is the ANC/SACP's term for whites. Or "Settler", a word the Pan Africanist Congress usually couples with "bullets". Or the derogatory use of "boer" (outside of the farming context) to incite hatred and terminal injury against whites in general and Afrikaners in particular. These are in common, daily usage.

I haven't heard commentators, journalists or student leaders getting themselves into a froth about these terms (except, perhaps, Afriforum). But even their court case against Julius Malema did not "trend" for three days on Twitter.

Unlike these insults, the word refugee is used to describe people who escaped tyranny, developed democracy, and contributed to the achievements of much of the modern world. Like most other refugees, my parents started out poor, and worked extremely hard to provide their children the opportunities they never had. My father began his working life as a manual labourer, and advanced to delivering bread, while studying at night. Eventually he started a small business. 

I never once heard him complain about his lot in life. My parents taught us to take responsibility and never to perceive ourselves as victims. Only as an adult can I sufficiently appreciate their guidance and wisdom. Much of this, I believe in retrospect, grew out of the fact that they were refugees. They were strong, principled, and never blamed their plight on others. They certainly weren't "professional offence takers" or "insult seekers".

Personally, I was not compelled to move to the Western Cape from Gauteng to secure my basic rights. I came because I had fallen in love and wanted to follow my heart. So I suppose I could be called a "romantic refugee", one of a growing number world-wide. Whatever, I don't consider the term an insult, in any form.

In contrast, it is a profound insult, indeed a SCANDAL, that our education system, after 18 years of democracy, is now worse for many children than it was under apartheid. That is the core problem. And it is worse in the Eastern Cape than anywhere else. No amount of froth and bluster will disguise it.

I have come to the conclusion that the bizarre outrage directed at my use of the term "refugee" is because many people conflate the word with "foreigners". Because South Africans are generally so profoundly xenophobic, they regard this as an insult. That is the underlying issue here. And it is another component of the real scandal that very few commentators care to notice.

When this red herring has been tossed to death in this teacup storm, we can get down to focusing on the real issue: the fact that so many children are denied the right to the basic education guaranteed in our Constitution. That is the real scandal.

The Western Cape and Gauteng (and to a lesser extent KwaZulu-Natal) already pick up this responsibility on behalf of other provinces, and we could do a great deal more if we were allocated the funds that are currently poured down the bottomless pit of the Eastern Cape and Limpopo's corruption-plagued governments, where they don't have the capacity to identify "ghost schools", let alone "ghost teachers".

This is the real insult to South Africans. And we will counter it by doing what refugees have always done: build a life in a new place, with opportunities not only for our children and grand-children, but for everyone.

Source:, March 27 2012

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