Our social responsibility

2008-02-26 00:00

I recently visited Mehlwenkosi Primary School in Kwaswayimane, a small location near Wartburg. Mehlwenkosi Primary has been classified as a no-fee school by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, as part of its no-fee school policy aimed at ensuring that all children of school-going age have access to education.

As a person who grew up in KwaMashu Township, I am aware of the challenges that are faced by schools in historically black residential areas in general and townships in particular. Given my own background I thought I knew what to anticipate from my visit to Mehlwenkosi. I did expect challenges — but nothing could have prepared me for what was going to be my encounter with the community of Kwaswayimane.

To say that I left the place depressed and emotionally wasted is a gross understatement that can only be the result of my limited vocabulary.

What was supposed to be a simple assignment on Mehlenkosi Primary and its no-fee status soon became an expedition of alarming discovery — not only about the school, but about the sad conditions its surrounding community lives under.

The real human stories of Aids orphans, child-headed households, large-scale unemployment, illiteracy and abject poverty better encapsulate the environment in which the school operates.

This soon reminded me of the socio-economic realities of our country, realities that sometimes we as citizens choose to ignore.

Since 1994, we have always managed to punch above our weight. So much so that we forget — by omission or by commission — that we are just a developing country on the southern tip of Africa. As a country, South Africa, with all its palpable breakthroughs and achievements notwithstanding, still has a lot of ground to cover — both socially and economically.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, like all other government departments, does not operate as an island. The socio-economic challenges of South Africa in-evitably affect and influence the work of the department. Most of the anomalies found in our schools are an extension of maladies generally found in our society.

The challenges in our schools —violence, vandalism, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and many others — are broader social ills, which regrettably affect the education of our children.

Unfortunately, the sad culture of finger wagging, grandstanding, political point scoring, brinkmanship and recalcitrance, does very little to remedy all these social anomalies. On the other hand, the screaming newspaper headlines and the questions often asked by our media do very little to help either.

Sometimes one wonders if these questions are inspired by the noble intention of extracting meaningful information which helps inform the political choices of the citizenry. Or is the posing of these questions to the department inspired by the allure of the odd sound bite and making newspaper headlines?

The unrealistic expectation that the Department of Education should provide health services, police services, psychological services and all manner of social services is preposterous and borders on political opportunism.

The department is constantly concerned about reports of vandalism, violence and drug abuse and all other social ills taking place in our schools, but it can only do so much. Its major core business is to ensure accessible and quality education and it should be analysed, monitored and judged against this core mission.

Everything else is the responsibility of all of us. It is also the responsibility of the government, trade unions, civil society, mass media and everybody who purports to be concerned about the education of our people.

As this year is still in its early stages, let us all take responsibility for the education of our nation.

While the Department of Education cannot be allowed to jettison its responsibility to the nation and its people, education still remains a societal responsibility.

• Sihle Mlotshwa is the media and citizen liaison spokesman for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education.

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