It is a shame that inequality has become sharper during our constitutional democracy than during apartheid.
Learners from Thembalethu High School in George received a visit from Lynne Brown, minister of public enterprises. Photo: Oryx Media (Oryx Media)
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At the beginning of the year, all government ministers choose two schools to visit and, hopefully, positively influence.
Last week I travelled to the Southern Cape to visit George and Thembalethu High Schools.
The one school is 70 years old, on the historically Coloured side of the town; the other just celebrated its 14th birthday, and is overwhelmingly African. Both are no-fee schools with more than 1500 learners, accommodation crunches and precious few resources.
What immediately struck me, though, was the orderliness and discipline of the learners. At George High, they crammed into the school hall, while at Thembalethu they gathered under the baking sun because the school doesn't have a hall big enough to accommodate them all. They stood without fidgeting, talking, prodding or poking. As a former teacher, I know that their discipline bears testimony to the learning environment created by the school principals, governing bodies and staff.
Together, the two schools represent our hope for a more equitable country, and the hurdles we must overcome to meet that objective. (I don't want to trample on the toes of the local education MEC, who is from a different party with different objectives, so we’ll leave it there.)
I tell the learners about the dual responsibilities of South Africa’s state-owned companies: That they are charged with being commercially successful while at the same time must play a leading role meeting the developmental and transformative needs of the state.
In meeting these needs state-owned companies and the learners have common purpose. The state-owned companies need excellent black civil, mechanical and electrical engineers; they need excellent black pilots, foresters, transport designers and managers, system analysts, auditors, lawyers and administrators.
I tell them about my own parents, probably not that different to their own. That my father was a truck driver and my mother a domestic worker. That I grew up in Mitchells Plain, obtained a teaching degree and taught in Mitchells Plain and Beaufort-West. That when I was growing up there were few opportunities for black kids; most of those who studied after school became teachers, nurses and social workers. That my father wishes I had remained a teacher…
But the truth is that while we still need teachers and nurses, what we need now more than anything, is for black children to push aside the false ceilings imposed on their parents and grasp the opportunities our new society offers. To change the trajectory of their lives, and to become active agents in reducing poverty, inequity and unemployment… to do it for themselves, while dragging their parents, families and communities with them.
I ask for a show of hands: Who is in Grade 12? Hundreds of hands… And which of you, Grade 12's, are doing real (what we used to call Higher Grade) maths? The forest shrinks by about 80%.
I tell the learners about a similar visit to Gugulethu two years ago, where six then-matriculants were signed up as trainee pilots. South African Express is among the six state-owned companies in the public enterprises stable.
So is Eskom! Do you know about Eskom? Yes, the learners heave. And what do you know about Eskom? Load-shedding, they respond. But we haven’t experienced load-shedding for more than 400 days, I try… My job is to ensure that there is no load-shedding… Perhaps you are yet to hear of Eskom’s turnaround. And, have you heard about the bursaries Eskom offers?
I promise the two schools that I will return to their town in March, with a contingent of specialists from the six state-owned companies in the public enterprises stable, for a career expo and discussions on available bursaries.
The rest is up to them, how much effort they choose to put into acquiring knowledge, into reading, and how badly they want to lift themselves and those around them from the quagmire of poverty.
One of them could be the future chief executive of Denel or Transnet, one of them could be running Alexkor…
Chatting in the staffroom at George High after addressing the learners, one of the senior teachers confesses to feeling embarrassed about the low uptake of maths and science at the school. “The school has a proud history. Former learners have made successes of their lives across the country and overseas. But the truth is we are not adequately resourced to really inspire the children,” he said.
When government officials visit public institutions, the hosts have often prepared a list of things to ask for. The requests from George and Thembalethu High were modest, indeed. Top of George High’s list was an intercom system at a cost of R20 000. And they really needed help improving conditions at the boy’s hostel. Thembalethu asked for help transporting three prefabricated classrooms to the school, and for their perimeter fence to be repaired and reinforced.
The school leadership really want to succeed. George High is presently struggling to reinstate the school library and resource centre that it was forced to close 15 years ago so that the space could be used for a classroom. At Thembalethu, Principal Kona’s office overflows with musical and choral competition trophies. Do you have a very strong music department, I ask. No we don't, he responds, ascribing the learners’ success to their innate talent.
Flowers are blooming despite the scarcity of water.
Not wanting to leave the schools empty handed after my visit, department officials put together a few boxes of stationary to be distributed to learners.
The joy on the faces of Thembalethu learners on hearing that the boxes included maths sets was worth the visit on its own.
- Lynne Brown is minister of public enterprises.
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