Some people, perhaps many, think Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for Education [now Finance – Ed] in Gauteng is a smart fellow. Some think he is a good MEC.
While he is right in permitting schools to change the names of schools that honour the heroes and the political names of the past – especially Apartheid politicians – if that is the wish of the parents, teachers and learners, there are many other things where he is wrong.
I say this because he is an arrogant ignorer of the Constitution and of the rights of parents. He is a latter-day Lord Milner, of post Anglo-Boer War fame, trying to make people forgo their language and their culture. Politicians proclaiming more wisdom than ordinary parents are particularly odious.
Lesufi had the effrontery recently to tell Afrikaans parents that he cannot understand why they want their children to be educated in their mother tongue. After all, there were now no Afrikaans universities and therefore they were positively harming their children’s future.
Apart from the equality provisions in terms of which all South Africans, (that means black, white, Zulu, Sotho, English, Afrikaans, and so on) are equal, Lesufi has obviously not read the clause that provides: “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions when that education is reasonably practicable.”
Nor has he read the clause that states: “…All official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equally.”
No one can seriously suggest that it is not practicable to have some schools that are Afrikaans-medium (not just for white children, of course; there are several million people who are not white who speak Afrikaans). Of the 23719 public schools in South Africa, only 2484 use Afrikaans and only 1279 are single medium Afrikaans schools, according to Paul Colditz, writing in Beeld last year. That is about 5% of all schools.
Because of the excellent matriculation results in Afrikaans high schools, as well as other Model C schools, many black parents are desperate to enrol their children in good schools that work. If the schools are English medium, that is fine. If they are Afrikaans medium, then the school must, according to Lesufi, admit the children anyway and offer education in English, irrespective of whether there is room and resources, including classrooms and teachers. If the school is full, then the ultimate weapon is to state that it is racist and is using language to keep black children out.
Let me be clear: if any Afrikaans parents or schools use language as a fig leaf to try to keep blacks out, then they too will be in breach of the Constitution and that cannot be supported or tolerated. But when a school is full and there are many vacancies at other good (and mediocre) schools in the same town then it is quite wrong for Lesufi, to turn language into a racial issue.
The sad truth is that many schools in disadvantaged areas, simply cannot compete because they are grossly under-resourced by the Gauteng Education Department and some are held hostage by SADTU, the teachers’ union that in many cases runs the show. Many schools in those areas are so badly supported and attended that they are being closed down and parents send their children miles away by taxi because their neighbourhood schools are so poor. If Lesufi would pay more attention to education and less attention to grandstanding on racial matters, we would have far better resourced schools serving the areas where people live, with room for reasonable language preferences to be catered for.
That is the way to honour our Constitution and to build One Nation.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.
This article first appeared in the Star.