Mbhazima Shilowa: Officials failed in forward planning for schools

Empty classrooms ready to receive pupils after being closed for over three months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Chanté Schatz, News24)
Empty classrooms ready to receive pupils after being closed for over three months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Chanté Schatz, News24)

The Department of Education should have used the lockdown period to identify schools that needed attention in order to prepare for pupils to return.

On 19 May 2020, the minister of basic education boldly announced schools will open their doors for grades 7 and 12.

This despite teachers' unions, school governing bodies, parents and NGOs saying it was just a pipe dream as many public schools will not be ready. 

Over the next two weeks, this became her mantra even when presented with evidence by the SA Human Rights Commission and teachers' unions that all the necessary protective equipment was not available: disinfectants, sanitisers, masks and in many instances, especially in rural areas, inadequate infrastructure, sanitation and water. 

Out of the blue and in a shambolic fashion at the last minute on Sunday night, she cancelled a press conference meant to give final details of the opening of the schools the following day.

One doubts if even the president was aware of the cancellation since he did not give any hint of the ensuing chaos when speaking of the way in which the government has at times (mis)handled communication. Only late at night, following an outcry, did the department issue a statement indicating that schools will not open as scheduled. 

In true fashion, symbolic of our two tier system of education - for the haves and the have nots - they indicated that since some of the pupils at boarding schools were already back at schools these would open fully using the time for orientation about Covid-19.

Clearly, it was assumed that all of these schools were ready to receive pupils and to start with teaching. It will not be surprising to find that the same pupils were receiving tuition even during lockdown while many in poor communities were at home. 

The clanger was the Western Cape, the epicentre of the pandemic in South Africa, indicating schools in the province would open as initially planned. This was the same province that a week earlier had announced that a number of teachers and pupils had tested positive for Covid-19.

Unlike the public, the MEC for education in the Western Cape would have been privy to the decision of the Council of Ministers of Education to delay the opening of the schools by a week.

It was therefore disingenuous of her to say she could not delay the announcement once the minister had cancelled the press conference. She knew the reasons for the cancellation and what the announcement was going to be the following day. 

Our Constitution, the covenant between the government and people of South Africa, is hailed all over the world as one of the best. Indeed it is one of the best, at least on paper. 

According to our Constitution, everyone has the right to basic necessities such as water and sanitation. Yet more than 20 years after the election of the democratic government and the adoption of the Constitution, many communities still do not have access to water.

In most areas budgeted funds have ended in the pockets of politicians, officials and their cronies.

Old infrastructure is crumbling as it has not been maintained. In certain areas, communities have returned to the old way of getting water from wells and streams. In my village, people now queue for water all day, something last seen in the early 1970s. 

These are the areas the government is now scrambling to provide water to through water tanks or tankers, an expensive exercise that has opened up another avenue for looting. 

It is not like they were not aware of the dire situation of the scarcity of water in these areas. In Makhanda, the government has twice lost a case in court against communities for it to provide them with water. 

The death of Michael Komape

Section 27 has been in and out of court with the department about norms and standards that include the provision of water and sanitation. Same in Limpopo following the death of Michael Komape who fell into a pit latrine.

For the last 11 years in her budget speech, the minister has undertaken to use budget allocations to deal with issue of school infrastructure. We would not be here had she kept her word or if there were consequences for failure to deliver. 

While she has apologised for the inconvenience based on what she said were unavoidable circumstances, she has not been able to explain why they did not use the past two months to provide schools with the same water tanks they are now scrambling to install.

Surely, these would have been provided for in the same way that the Department of Water and Sanitation had been trying to provide water to communities. 

We know that while it will be easy for the department to achieve physical distancing with grades 7 and 12, it will be difficult if not impossible to maintain that once the other grades return to school because of overcrowding and a shortage of teachers.

The shortage of teachers will be made more difficult with the call for those who are over 60 years of age or with comorbidities to stay home.

Again there was no reason for the department not to use the period of the lockdown to identify schools that will require mobile classrooms and start delivering now instead of once more waiting until the other grades are due to return to school. 

Forward planning is a foreign concept for them. How do they explain waiting until the schools open to find out which teachers have chronic illnesses that may militate against them returning to class.

Again, this could have been done during the lockdown period. The same with the identification of those who are over 60 years of age. In fact, it would be a perfect opportunity for them to retire. 

While we should be waiting with bated breath to see what will happen next week when pupils in the other eight provinces are supposed to return to school, I have no reason to believe the majority of schools in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and North West will be Covid-19 ready. It will be another two weeks before any semblance of teaching will be possible in these areas. 

I have heard it being said miracles do happen, but I am old enough to know about miracles. Rather, I go by the Xitsonga adage: "Mintirho ya vulavula" (Actions speaks louder than words). 

- Mbhazima Shilowa is the former premier of Gauteng, trade unionist and Cope leader.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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