This year marks the 21th anniversary of the adoption of our constitution, the world-renowned document that is the linchpin of South Africa’s democratic project.
Section 29 of the constitution enshrines the right to education and the successive governments have continuously set aside a lion’s share of the national budget to the realisation of that right.
However, there seems to be ever-present forces working contrary to that constitutional imperative. These forces are political, commercial and social, and don’t necessarily stem from the same source, but their ends stifle the progress of mainly, if not solely, working-class children.
That so many working-class children are able to complete the basic schooling programme is a justified cause for celebration when one considers the unnecessary hurdles that they have to overcome.
Unlike their former Model C and privately schooled counterparts, working-class children have to resign themselves to the fact that they can expect to miss as much as three to six months of schooling because a political promise of building houses wasn’t kept, and so disgruntled members of their communities see it fit that there be no schooling until the said promise is met, as was the case Eldorado Park and Ennerdale, in Johannesburg, recently and in Taung, in North West, in 2013.
When schools reopened at the beginning of 2015, children in Limpopo’s Malamulele were denied their right to education as protesting residents saw their children education as collateral damage in their pursuit for their own municipality.
In 2016 that impasse reached new and deplorable lows as 24 schools were touched in Vuwani. Forty-one years ago young people braved bullets of the brutal apartheid regime in their demand for quality education, and they paid dearly with their lives in Soweto and elsewhere across the country. Today, we find it so easy to demolish schools, the very institutions tasked with producing a better citizenry for the republic. In the violent and destructive protests that erupt across the country, libraries have also been known to be reduced to ashes from Mohlakeng, in Gauteng, to Mpumalanga’s Siyabuswa.
Speaking during the 2014 National Library Week, Unisa’s executive director of library services, Dr. Buhle Mbambo-Thata, said the following on the torching of libraries: “I’m challenging the young people that instead of being the first ones to lighting up the match, we will be the first ones to form a human chain because when the riots has been finished and the water is brought to our community, we will not have a library … and it will be your results and studies that will be affected by the absences of that library.”
It’s high time that people are reminded that libraries aren’t just buildings that house books, but that they are also transformative places in a world that now more than ever places the greatest premium on information.
The futures of working-classing children are also sacrificed almost effortlessly when shoddy schools are built and sometimes never materialise because contracts are given to incapable people who just happen to be on a first-name basis with political heavyweights whose mere sneeze affects the daily operations in government’s various procurement and supply-chain departments.
Those whose actions impede on working-class children’s access to rooms of learning must be mindful of the fact that we aren’t an ahistorical country. Our actions, whether we are aware of it or not, are tools that sustain South Africa’s historical injustice or are instruments that aid the cause restitution, and education, or lack of it, is at the heart of either end.
In his famous completers speech at Fort Hare in 1949, Robert Sobukwe summed up the importance of education aptly when he said: “Education to us means service to Africa. In whatever branch of learning you are, you are there for Africa. You have a mission; we all have a mission. A nation to build, we have.”
In what way is the prevention of children from attending school or a teacher not doing his/her work adequately or a greedy service provider supplying expired food for a school’s feeding scheme contributing to our national and continental mission of restoration and renewal? The continued short-changing of working-class children will not do this country’s well-documented inequality any favours, and the consequences will be more dire for everyone because those who are marginalised always find alternative and sometimes populist methods of asserting their power in societies that regard them and their legitimate grievances as afterthoughts.
So, it’s in the national interest for working-class children to know that they too matter, that they too are national assets, and an inclusive, productive and transformative schooling environment is the best way of ensuring that.