Max du Preez

Civil society's next target: the education of our children

2018-03-20 08:36

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The foundation of any civilised society is surely the sanctity of the human life and the principle that all lives have the same inherent value.

I can’t imagine that many would differ from these statements. Until one spells it out: the value of a new-born baby of a president, a billionaire or a celebrity has to be valued at exactly the same level as the new-born baby of a labourer, an unemployed person living in a squatter camp, or a vagrant.

A baby doesn’t choose his/her parents. No civilised society can tolerate it that a baby’s worth and fate are determined by where his/her parents feature on society’s hierarchy or by the amount of money they make.

When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, it wasn’t possible to eradicate inequality, poverty and unemployment with the stroke of a pen. We could not eradicate the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in an instant, but we could and should have assured a new and better future for our new generations right from the day the first democratic government took office.

Our challenge was to steadily undo the damage of the past by making sure that the new generation of children being born all have an equal chance to live fulfilling and healthy lives and develop to their full potential; that they could escape the poverty trap their parents were caught in.

Children like Lumka Mketwa, the five-year-old girl who died the most horrible death when she fell down a pit latrine at her Bizana school last week and drowned in human excrement. On the same day we heard of Lumka’s death, we also heard that R34 million of taxpayer money was spent on the private court actions of former president Jacob Zuma and R22 million by former SABC chief Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

My builder friends tell me that the state could have built more than seven thousand safe toilets for schools with that R56 million, and then Lumka would have been able to walk to her school this morning.

My teenage daughter’s school is a brilliant institution where she is treasured as an individual, intellectually stimulated and sensitively prepared for adult life. She only has that privilege because her father can afford it and lives in the right middle class neighbourhood. There are girls her age and with her intellectual capabilities a mere five kilometres from her school who daily walk to school dodging gangster bullets.

Their school has no laboratory, library or computers and there are fifty learners in each class, often being taught by a totally under-qualified teacher. These girls have very little chance to compete with my child once they’re out of school, and not because of anything they did or did not do. 

It is in such schools, probably most state schools, where youngsters with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Asperger’s syndrome or other challenges on the autism spectrum, or serious trauma because of their domestic situation are called stupid and difficult. With a little bit of understanding these kids could have been top performers in their class.

The statistics are there for anyone to look up: If your father and mother are poor, the chances are overwhelming that you will also be poor and unsuccessful as an adult. In this way we perpetuate the inequality and injustice that is increasingly polarising and destabilising our society, because almost all the schools without proper infrastructure, facilities or qualified teachers are in the townships or the deep rural areas.

According to all indications, the education our children get in these schools are of the worst in the world, while most of our suburban schools are above the world average. We have been perpetuating apartheid. The way the elected governments since 1994 have treated the education of our black children is tantamount to a crime against humanity.

I fully support the idea of free tertiary education, but what sense does it make to spend so many extra billions of rands on students at universities when primary education is of such a low standard – and children drown in pit latrines?

Unless President Cyril Ramaphosa’s "new deal" is an election gimmick, it will have to start off with a massive and ambitious intervention in basic education. It was largely through civil society’s activism that South Africa got rid of the Zuma/Gupta nest of corruption and restored political accountability.

The education of our children should surely be civil society’s next target?

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