Give Our Children Equal Chances
Updated: Apr 29, 2019
A few weeks ago, the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, delivered the latest set of matric results. The release of the results represents the end of a 12-year journey for pupils, one that requires the commitment and discipline of pupils, teachers, parents and the community at large.
Given the size of the basic education system - it accommodates 12-million pupils at a time - its management has to be one of the most important tasks for the government and the country at large. The role of schools in society goes beyond the provision of teaching and learning; schools represent a social asset characterised by a proximity to communities that few other public resources can replicate. They are an asset whose ability to transform the immediate community has significant long-term benefits for society.
This proximity has its pitfalls. As a social asset located at the centre of each community, schools are also seen as something that can be interrupted in order to attract the attention of the state at large.
The torching of schools in Vuwani in 2016 represented the dark side of this reality. Communities whose grievances against the state had little to do with basic education saw that the state regards schools as the crown jewels in the pursuit of a better life, so they used the schools as pawns in pushing their demands.
This has set us all back. South African history being what it is, there are sizable discrepancies in the allocation of resources within the basic education system.
Of the 25,700 schools in the system, the state is responsible for more than 23,000. The rest are private schools primarily distinguished by their ability to charge fees to keep themselves viable. Most state schools do not charge fees simply because the communities they serve cannot afford them in the first place.
This situation means that the state's ability to roll out critical infrastructure to schools is subject to multiple constraints. These constraints mean that equality in educational resources for pupils in both school systems is still far from being realised.
It is critical that we move towards similar resources being made available to all pupils because those resources enable pupils to thrive in the education system. And since most pupils who end up in schools with limited resources are there through no choice of their own but rather through accidents of history and circumstance, it is our responsibility to mitigate this through the provision of quality infrastructure.
Children losing their lives in pit toilets is an ongoing national shame. Fixing this requires collaboration between the primary stakeholders - the communities - and the state. When one stakeholder actively undermines the mission, there is a problem.
In 2018, the Gauteng department of education built a world-class facility for the community of Tsakane. The facility, which cost more than R100m, was one of the more ambitious projects aimed at bridging the infrastructure gap between township schools and the suburban and private schools. Modern equipment was installed. And yet, within hours of the school being officially opened, the equipment was stolen. This theft means that the department's intention to bring world-class infrastructure closer to the community yielded little fruit.
The hard reality is that the thieves are part of our society. While one cannot unpack the underlying psychology of criminals here, one can ask how members of society - criminal or otherwise - can fail to appreciate that among all public resources, schools occupy a special place in our lives.
Losing school infrastructure through theft forces us to deliberate on what the appropriate response should be. If the view is that replacing the infrastructure simply provides an incentive for the thieves to try again, we might decide not to replace anything. But in that case, those who would suffer more immediately are the innocent pupils whose educational experience is severely compromised.
Alternatively, the approach would be to devolve responsibility to the community and society at large. We all know that the stolen equipment is not going to make its way into the formal economy. Rather, in the trenches of the offline economy dominated by stolen goods and counterfeit merchandise, the 185 tablets belonging to the pupils and community of Menzi Primary School will be found.
Some of us will buy them and not wonder how they came to be in the hands of the seller. In that accountability vacuum, we develop a much more dangerous society where the equality we seek across our schools and communities is overtaken by the inter-generational transfer of inequality.
Perhaps our schools have a responsibility to teach not just the pupils in class but the larger community about how we need to be individually and collectively accountable for our social assets. Failing to do so will condemn us all to inter generational economic and moral servitude.
This article first appeared in The Business Times, Sunday Times on Sunday, 20 January 2019.