Ending the language of violence

2018-01-21 05:46
Excited Grade 1 pupil Syed Abbas during his first day of school at Alberton Primary School. Picture: Rosetta Msimango

Excited Grade 1 pupil Syed Abbas during his first day of school at Alberton Primary School. Picture: Rosetta Msimango

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Lydia Montyamane’s two children are in Phoenix High School, Vereeniging, although she lives a block from Hoërskool Overvaal.

“I pay almost R1 000 a month to transport my two children to Phoenix and back,” she said this week. Phoenix High is nearly 8km from Overvaal.

She is not happy with the quality of education her children get at Phoenix.

The school’s matric pass rate last year was 72%, compared to Overvaal’s 100%.

She said classes at Phoenix had between 35 and 37 pupils.

According to court documents, the school’s infrastructure could accommodate 598 pupils. It currently has 610.

Many other parents in the area shared Montyamane’s frustration this week.

Overvaal hogged news headlines on the first day of school on Wednesday, not due to a shortage of teachers or study materials, but because of the debate about black children’s access to education and exclusive language policies.

On Monday, the Pretoria High Court set aside the Gauteng education department’s decision to admit 55 non-Afrikaans speaking children to Overvaal.

The ruling resulted in confrontations outside the school between groups including the Congress of SA Students and white parents. Police had to intervene to separate them.

Gauteng education department spokesperson Steve Mabona said the school only had eight black pupils this year, because it was mainly an Afrikaans school and the children were from Afrikaans-speaking homes.

The department had argued in court that the 55 should be allowed to attend the school as they lived near the school and they could not be refused access on the basis of language.

Judge Bill Prinsloo ruled that the school was full and that English-medium schools in the area – Phoenix High and General Smuts High School (about 9km from Overvaal) – had enough space for the pupils.

City Press understands that some of the children were subsequently placed at Riverside High School, about 14km from Overvaal.

Jaco Deacon, deputy chief executive officer at the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) said the department did not have a standard that determined how many students a school may take.

Fedsas had worked out a formula on behalf of member schools to enable them to determine how many children they could accommodate. It takes into account how much space children need to play, move between classes and sit in class.

According to court documents, Overvaal had told the department it only had capacity for 36 pupils per class. The department insisted that 40 could fit.

It did not say how it arrived at this number.

Deacon said although the demographics around schools had changed significantly since 1994, the onus remained on the department to build new schools, rather than forcing schools to take more pupils.

“The government has long known that we need more schools for the growing student numbers in Gauteng.

If quality education is really a priority, the money will be made available to build schools,” he said.

"A need for a broader discussion"

By the end of the week, protesters vowed not to back down on their demand that the 55 pupils attend the school and that English be introduced as a second medium of instruction.

Hoërskool Overvaal school governing body chairperson Gerhardus Petrus Visagie declined to comment on allegations that Mediation in Emotion and Allan Boesak Foundation contacted the school to mediate.

City Press heard that a meeting set to mediate between Hoërskool Overvaal protesters and the school was scheduled to be held at the Vereeniging police headquarters today.

Although he said mediation could be an option to resolve the issue, Visagie questioned what the outcome of mediation would achieve because there was a court outcome.

He said the school had daily contacted the Sedibeng education district to come chat with protesters without any success.

The SA Human Rights Commission’s Andre Gaum, who is responsible for basic education, visited Overvaal this week to assess the situation. He said various rights were at stake and needed to be protected

“There are demonstrations taking place and, while there is a fundamental right to protest, that should be done in a peaceful manner and not negatively impact the right to basic education of the pupils inside.

“We’ve conveyed that message clearly to demonstrators. There is a need for a broader discussion in South Africa about the whole matter of language rights in education.

"Other rights that are also at stake are equality, access to schools and dignity. I don’t think all these matters should end up in court.”

“I think there’s a serious decision necessary about this, otherwise we’re going to have these confrontational situations all the time,” Gaum said.

Protest

Outside the school on Wednesday, tyres were set alight, revolutionary songs denouncing racism were sung, a white parent was assaulted after he allegedly showed protesters the middle finger and one protester was arrested for allegedly carrying a gun.

Police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse people and made several arrests.

On Thursday, police fired rubber bullets at protesters after a police van was petrol bombed.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) accused police of targeting their members.

Gauteng police spokesperson Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said a person carrying a firearm, and who was part of a protest, was charged with public violence and his firearm was confiscated.

“There will be an investigation in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

"Police may search and seize a firearm from any person when there are reasonable grounds that it may be used to commit an offence.”

Dlamini denied claims that police discriminated on the basis of race in their efforts to establish order and ensure the safety of children in the school, while protecting people’s right to protest.

The EFF’s ward 40 secretary, TP Moeti, said a black child must get equal, free education wherever his parents wanted.

They want the 55 children to attend school at Hoërskool Overvaal, regardless of the court ruling.

“Principals in township schools are forced by education department officials to accommodate pupils in classrooms even when the school is full.

“The officials force the principals to admit the child, telling him that ‘like it or not the child will attend there because there is no black child that will be denied education’.”

He claimed that when parents applied for placement of black children in mainly white schools, these parents were referred to other schools when the principal said the school was full.

“What do you call that? Is the policy not meant to be the same?

"We’ve got 55 pupils in one class in township schools. Here they are 30 in a class. What’s the difference between us and these people?”

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