Why did it burn?

2013-05-28 10:00

Inadequate and crumbling infrastructure is only part of the problem at Eastern Cape schools.

A recent visit to the Eastern Cape confirmed my belief that the South African education crisis is now a matter of national security.

My husband and I spent the weekend of April 20 to 21 in Ngcobo visiting family.

When I mentioned that I would be spending the rest of the week in Mthatha, where I would join the Eastern Cape Schools Solidarity Visit organised by Equal Education and led by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, the immediate response was: “You must see the school that the students burnt in Manzana!”

Deeply troubled by these reports, we decided to pass by and see the school. Conveniently located and in scenic surroundings, Manzana Senior Secondary School was one of the best-resourced rural schools in the Ngcobo district.

From the outside, there seemed to be little damage to the sturdily built red-brick structures, but as we stepped into the courtyard, we were confronted by the sight of a burnt-out fridge and stove, and the twisted remains of chairs and desks.

Scraps of curling plastic were all that remained of computers that had been burnt to cinders.

Fragments of textbooks, certificates and statements of results were scattered everywhere. Inside the classrooms, floors were burnt to the foundations.

As we emerged from the school gates, one of the teachers pulled up.

The strain of the past few days etched clearly on her face, she related how, on Thursday, April 18, Grade 11 students and some parents had gathered at the school for a meeting that had been scheduled with provincial education officials to discuss the decision by the department not to allow them to proceed to Grade 12.

When the officials did not turn up, the students went on the rampage, setting the school alight in front of the teachers.

Asked why teachers were unable to stop them, her terse response was: “That was just not possible. The students were so angry that when the fire brigade arrived, they threw stones at the vehicles to prevent them from entering the premises. They even cracked the windscreen of one of the fire engines.”

As we spoke to the teacher, a police vehicle arrived.

The two officers inside confirmed that three people had been arrested and investigations were continuing.

In the days that followed, the Equal Education delegation visited hopelessly overcrowded and under-resourced schools with toilet facilities ranging from barely adequate to downright disgusting. For the children in these schools, libraries, computers, science laboratories and sports fields were unheard-of luxuries.

Confronted by the disturbing sight of children seated on “chairs” fashioned from crumbling bricks, my mind kept going back to the school in Manzana.

In a province in which 97% of schools have no libraries and 96% have no computer centres, it is difficult to fathom why students who have such facilities would let them go up in flames.

According to a report in The Daily Dispatch, Manzana Senior Secondary is the 11th school to be vandalised by angry pupils since 2011.

The provincial department of education officials we met on the last day of the tour cited vandalism as a serious problem and found it deeply unsettling that even as they were struggling to keep up with the demand to build schools, some were being destroyed by vandalism.

The historian in me felt particularly distressed that students would burn down a school in Manzana, the birthplace of Alfred Bitini Xuma.

I wondered if those children knew the history of the man who, from humble beginnings as a herd boy, attended primary school in Manzana and rose to become a medical doctor, president of the ANC from 1940 to 1949 and an internationally distinguished intellectual.

I could not help feeling the tragic events at the school were causing Dr Xuma to turn in his grave.

The campaign to get the minister of education to promulgate minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure is extremely important, and I admire and commend the young people of Equal Education for pursuing it so relentlessly.

But what I saw in Manzana convinced me that inadequate and crumbling infrastructure is only part of the problem.

Many would argue it is easier to correct that problem than to build the infrastructure of the mind and restore a culture of learning.

One of the teachers I spoke to in Ngcobo felt the root of the problem was in the primary schools: “Children do not learn to read and write, and they just get pushed up until they reach secondary school. Then we are expected to work miracles and make bread out of stones.”

I was struck by the absence of books and any reading material in classrooms we visited.

It seemed the only books around were textbooks and even those were not widely available.

Children in a Grade 9 class I spoke to said they did not read books, magazines or newspapers – in effect, they read nothing.

Little wonder the 2012 matric pass rate in that school was 13%.

Acclaimed writer Sindiwe Magona often comments: “You cannot infect someone with a disease you do not have. So how can teachers infect students with an enthusiasm for reading when they do not read themselves?”

Sindiwe and fellow writers Njabulo S Ndebele and Zakes Mda were all part of the delegation.

At the first school we visited, one of the teachers recognised Ndebele because she had read one of his books at college.

None of the teachers at any of the other schools we visited knew who these writers were, despite the fact that Sindiwe and Zakes have strong roots in the Eastern Cape.

If we are serious about restoring a culture of learning and teaching in our schools, we have to ask serious questions about the capacity and conduct of teachers.

Local and international studies reveal that the South African education system has abnormally high rates of teacher absenteeism.

During our visit, we learnt that schools were closed for two days in a particular district because the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) was holding its elections.

Because the schools were closed on Wednesday and Thursday, one could logically expect there would be little learning and teaching on Friday and, in the following week, schools would be closed again in the middle of the week for Workers’ Day.

We found it difficult to understand how Sadtu or the department of education could tolerate such a level of disruption.

On the way home from the schools visit, I saw a photograph of a Sadtu protest march in which the protesting teachers had displayed large ladies’ panties stretched across a piece of wire, labelled “Puluma ya Angie”. This action, clearly aimed at insulting and humiliating the minister of basic education, raises many questions about the sexual abuse of women.

If they can publicly display such disrespect and contempt towards their minister, what is to prevent their students from doing the same thing to them?

As blogger Koketso Moeti so aptly puts it: “For children watching this, what these teachers have planted is the idea that displaying underwear is a means of conflict resolution.”

It is a short step from lack of respect, insult and invective to violent and destructive action.

Perhaps the behaviour of the students at Manzana is not so difficult to understand after all.

On a more positive note, the visit gave us the chance to pay tribute to those teachers who work tirelessly in difficult conditions to inspire and exhort their charges to love learning.

There were the dynamic young people, black and white, at Zithulele Mission who could be at home in any corporate boardroom, but instead choose to use their talents to teach maths and science to rural children using the Khan Academy methodology.

There were the teachers and school governing-body members at Ngangelizwe High School who devoted their time to supervising a holiday camp for their Grade 12 students, an effort that helped raise matric results from 44% to 62.7% in one year.

There was Judge Mtoniswa and his governing body, who campaigned for many years to get a new school built for their area.

There was the young teacher at Putuma Junior Secondary School who had taken her choir to the National Championship. Watching her conduct pupils whose performance was sublime enough for any international stage was truly inspirational.

Emblazoned on the notice board in another school’s cramped staff room, above neatly laid-out timetables and lesson plans, was a huge sign saying: Where there is a will, there is a way. Indeed there is.

»?Sisulu is a writer, human rights activist and political analyst

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