Reopening of schools: Angie Motshekga’s vinegar approach grates

It was bound to happen. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga would get it the worst.

And if her posture was anything to go by last Tuesday evening, not only did she anticipate the inevitable but assumed the hard line – swinging right back.

Let's be honest, in the wake of her colleagues' stuff-ups; the tobacco U-turn; the lampooned level 4 winter clothing list; belligerent undertones in the defence and police clusters; and a nation in the throes of football and alcohol withdrawal anxiety, the minister's decision to open schools for grades 7 and 12 was sure to be the most ill-fated announcement of all.

Understandably, the backlash has been unlike anything we’ve seen hitherto.

Where humorous moments were had regarding ministers Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s “zol” and Ebrahim Patel’s “Alice in Wonderland” list, few are laughing in the face of the imminent June 1 announcement.

Bone-chilling news reports that France has had to shut down more than 600 schools in the wake of a spike in Covid-19 coronavirus infections are not helping.

Do the people in the Covid-19 national command council have school-going kids of their own? Which schools do they go to, using what mode of transport?
Phakamisa Mayaba

Neither is the minister’s uptight, some might say unsympathetic, response to questions about safety when schools eventually do open.

Her coldness arouses the sort of questions government would not want an already cranky nation to be turning over in their heads, such as: Do the people in the Covid-19 national command council have school-going kids of their own? Which schools do they go to, using what mode of transport?

It speaks of enduring class schisms. The white elephant of an elitist government often accused of having taken the finger off the nation’s pulse is again brought to the fore.

It’s the ever-widening wealth gap which, during the lockdown, has millions going to bed hungry.

Images come up of overcrowded classrooms, textbooks that don’t arrive on time and feeding scheme budgets that run out midyear.

Dreadfully, we are reminded of Michael Komape drowning in a pit latrine.

Months after that incident, proper toilets had still not been put up at his school.

How do we trust that in all schools government will be able to timeously deliver the requisite Covid-19 protective gear, yet when we seek those filial reassurances of a parent from the minister, she’s seemingly taken a page out of the police ministry’s book?

Drill sergeant style, there are allusions to not being held to ransom by “anxious parents” – this from a senior guardian of the nation’s most vulnerable.

Read: All systems go for reopening of schools from June 1

Because decisions from the council are based on consensus, nobody is naive enough to think that Motshekga played a lone hand nor that, had she done differently, she would’ve pleased everyone.

But South Africans are also not so unreasonable that some sincerity in her attitude would not have won some of us over.

Crises are made up of unpopular decisions. Nelson Mandela, for one, is said to have been a grandmaster in this style of emotive leadership.

In the aftermath of SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani’s assassination, with the country’s future hanging precariously, up stepped the old man, appealing for calm when the chant on the ground was: “Kill the Boer!”

It was an unpopular ask at the time, but Madiba’s earnestness saw murderous tempers cooled.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast that desperate times call for desperate measures, but that would be letting government off the hook.

On the contrary, this is the modus operandi characteristic of contemporary South African leadership.

We saw it at the Life Esidimeni hearings; at the so-called SA Social Services Agency debacle; and at a host of embarrassments where leaders simply got it wrong and didn’t own up to it.

It’s the ever-widening wealth gap which, during the lockdown, has millions going to bed hungry

So when Motshekga barks that schools will open – if you don’t like it, let your child stay at home, or words to that effect – it’s really nothing new.

That this is a slap in the face of the impoverished learner with no means to home schooling and water off a duck’s back to his middle class counterpart says more about government’s posture on socioeconomics than anything else.

To an extent, it was never really about the decision to open schools or not. Parents knew that had to come some time.

But what had even the poorest people tuned in to Motshekga’s address was the hope that their fears would be allayed by a compassionate ear.

Anyone who has seen the figures knows better than to expect guarantees; not even science could pull that off.

But on the one occasion when the word ‘nanny’ would not have offended anybody, sadly, she was just not there.

Mayaba is a layperson who has been to university


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