OPINION | A new start: Liberation through Education

Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequalities in our nation and in our schools. (subman/Getty Images)
Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequalities in our nation and in our schools. (subman/Getty Images)

Jacqueline Samuels has twenty years of teaching experience and seven years of lecturing experience. She is currently completing a Master of Philosophy degree in Education and Training for Lifelong Learning at the University of Stellenbosch. 

"School must continue" decorates the front page of every newspaper.

It is the headlines on every news channel and the popular discussion on social media. For weeks there have been cries from teachers and parents to postpone the opening of schools.

There have also been intense discussions as many across the country are afraid to send their children to school.

Seeing this, I find myself taken back to a time in history when fear and anxiety filled the air.

The year was 1985, "School must continue" was plastered on top of the newspapers.

It was a year of country-wide unrest, when violent and non-violent protests were a daily occurrence. I was in standard seven (Grade 9) at the peak of the 1985 unrest, and my brother was in primary school.

Picking him up after school was like walking through a warzone. On one occasion we were shot at and cornered, as we ran for our lives. I saw a ditch and pushed my brother into it, covering him with my body.

My first instinct was to protect him. We remained in that ditch shaking with fear until we heard the police leave and the gunfire stop.

Many learners died that year.

Schools were open, but as the bells rang out, eyes burned, and tears streamed down cheeks as teargas was lobbed into classrooms.

Classes filled with panicked learners were disrupted, and rubber bullets shot into the crowds. 

"How were teachers supposed to teach let alone finish a curriculum?" 

Exams were scheduled, but little instruction could happen. Teachers were left impotent and terrified, while learners were exposed to danger.

I know that many can remember this period in our history - a time where teargas filled the air, an irritant to some but lethal to others. Many sacrifices were made that year. 

Today we also find ourselves exposed once again, not to bullets or teargas, but to droplets; droplets that can be as lethal and deadly as any teargas or bullet.

But unlike the bullets of 1985, these droplets do not care about racial barriers. They do not discern whether you are rich or poor.

They spread regardless, and we are rapidly left feeling exposed and without protection. 

Many South Africans will experience similar emotions in the next few weeks, whether it is a sibling, a parent, or granny fetching their child from school. 

This will be a fearful time.

Parents find themselves gripped by the fear that their children will contract the virus. The safety of their children is every parent's biggest concern.

They want the assurance that every precaution will be taken to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of their children during these stressful times.

Teachers fear that they will not be properly equipped to handle face to face teaching, while now also shouldering burdens of being a health professional for these children too.

Before academic activities can continue, teachers need to spend time at establishing a relationship of trust and protection towards their learners.

Teachers are the fiercest defenders of their learners, but they now find themselves unable to provide that protection.

They have no control over the virus and feel that they have no say in the decision-making process regarding when schools should resume and the structure that will be followed.

Teachers might feel ineffective or unimportant, and these negative elements serve to make teachers feel disempowered. 

Nelson Mandela wrote: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." 

For too long we, as South Africans have been complacent with the daily traumas our children face. 

Children are confronted with inhumane exposure to violence. 

Children sit in classes with empty bellies, their last meal the day before, experiencing pangs of hunger, but are expected to concentrate. 

Children come to school soaking wet in winter with no change of clothes, whose journey to school includes passing a dead body in their street. Hearing gunshots has become so normal for these children. 

This is our impoverished children's reality. 

There have been considerable efforts to minimise the social and economic divide in South Africa.

Still, sadly the reality of current South Africa continues to be widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, unemployment, violence, and abuse. 

Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequalities in our nation and in our schools.

Being a pupil in 1985 meant you were part of the fight for equal education, a fight that meant opportunities to all learners regardless of their race, age, sex, or socioeconomic class. 

We find ourselves in a situation where many have lost hope and are wrapped in fear.

Some may even have forgotten what liberation feels like because they feel so oppressed under their current circumstances. 

We need to be a source of hope. Where fear has broken dreams, we need to encourage pupils to dream again.

When one looks at the impoverished schools in South Africa, one will observe that parents and children are powerless in terms of their education. They act as if their democratic right does not matter. 

Parents and children need to be empowered because their voices are important.

They need to become conscious of their circumstances and have a desire to change a bad situation. 

Learning should be understood in the context of the pupil's context, which can be difficult, but we must persevere and continually instil a desire for change in the circumstances of the vulnerable pupils.

Education in the era of apartheid produced a legacy of social and economic inequalities.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, unpacks various models of education in his book, Pedagogy of the oppressed (1970). 

Freire's theory of education is set within the framework of social change, and he differentiates between two types of education: 'banking' education, and 'problem-posing' education.

Banking education is what takes place when the teacher deposits knowledge into his or her student.

In this case, the students are "passive participants", who are not allowed to ask 'how' or 'why' questions - their role is simply to absorb information. This was the paradigm of education in 1985 in South Africa.

In contrast, problem-posing education is liberation.

It requires a shift from the notion of the educator as a depositor of knowledge to a relational model where teacher and student engage to become co-investigators.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines liberation as an occasion when something or someone is released or set free.

Liberation also means freedom from oppression.

Our current generation is known as the "born free" generation, but they are not free.

We have an obligation to liberate our pupils and continue to employ the problem-posing method of education.

We have schools that have beautiful infrastructure who can potentially cope with the virus, but we also have schools who are in desperate need of basics such as running water. 

We cannot bring liberation to all learners when some schools lack these basic infrastructures.

A structure whereby every pupil can receive an equal education; this is the ideal we fought for in 1985. 

Education transforms and creates opportunities.

Transformation is a continuous process. Transformation is a process whereby attitudes, thought patterns, and eventually, actions undergo change.

One of the slogans in 1985 was "Liberation before education."

It would inspire me greatly to see the newspaper headlines in  2021 read: A new start - Liberation through Education.

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