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Mon Nov 24 22:07:17 SAST 2014

The black child betrayed

Justice Malala | 26 March, 2012 00:15

Every few weeks we hear reports of schoolchildren - packed up to 20 per taxi - being involved in a horrific accident. Three weeks ago it happened again, when a taxi driver overtook six cars at a level crossing. The taxi was hit by a train.

The question is this: Why are thousands of township or village children leaving home in the dead of night to get to school? What is wrong with the schools in their neighbourhood?

My abiding memory of my favourite country, Nigeria, is the people boasting about their children in schools in the US, UK and other developed nations. Why were there so many Nigerian kids in foreign schools? The answer was simple: the schooling system in Nigeria had collapsed to such an extent through the successive wars and coups that any self-respecting parents would have given their right arm - if not their life - to see their child schooled anywhere, as long as it was as far as possible home.

This is what many middle-class black parents did under apartheid, and that is why you find so many members of the black elite with qualifications from places such as Waterford KaMhlaba, in Swaziland. For those who could afford it, or could secure a scholarship, this was the alternative to the heinous crime of Bantu education.

So why do so many black parents now pack their children into dangerous minibus taxis to get them to "better schools" in towns and cities across the country? The answer is obvious. These parents have lost faith in township and village schools. They know, from looking at the exam results and the system, that they are consigning their children to the dustbin of life if they let them stay in these schools. They are voting with their feet and what little cash they have. They are moving their kids to town.

Last week, DA leader Helen Zille was lambasted by a large chunk of the media and the ANC for saying that Western Cape was attracting education "refugees" from Eastern Cape. The twitter and blogosphere went haywire with indignation. Some called on her to apologise; others said she should resign.

Should she?

It is worth noting a few things about the education situation in Eastern Cape. The first is that throughout the colonial days and thereafter Eastern Cape was regarded as a leader in black education. The Nelson Mandelas and Thabo Mbekis of this world hailed from proud schools in that province. The country's first black university, Fort Hare, attracted the continent's best brains - black and white.

Fast forward to last year, when the national government had to take over the running of the Eastern Cape education department because it had collapsed. The province registered the worst matric results in the country. This year, teachers went on strike for more than six weeks and reports indicate that not much teaching is taking place in that province.

What would you do if you were a parent with a child in an Eastern Cape school? I would take my child out of that school and put him in one elsewhere. I would uproot my family from my friends, relatives and home. I would become an "education refugee".

Which brings me to my anger at and disquiet about Zille, the black intelligentsia and the use of the word "refugees".

I have yet to see South Africans of any hue go wild with anger and indignation at what is happening to the black child - and the black family - in Eastern Cape.

Indeed, the outrage and indignity of what a combination of government incompetence and corruption is doing to black people in that province is hardly spoken about.

Famous schools such as Healdtown are shells of their former selves. Fort Hare has become a joke. Schooling in many parts of Eastern Cape has collapsed. Teachers rape children. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

But these are not sexy issues for Twitter or casual outrage. What is sexy is to accuse Zille of racism for pointing out the indisputable fact of our government's and our own failures.

Not that the accusations do not hold water. A political leader of Zille's experience should surely be alive to the fact that 300 years of colonialism and 46 years of apartheid and its legacy did not disappear into thin air in 1994.

What particularly rankles is that she knows that, even if every Eastern Cape teacher worked like a demon, the disparities between the schools of the two provinces - nurtured over many years in Western Cape and suckled on sour milk in Eastern Cape over the past 18 years - cannot compare.

It is one thing to point out the truth, as Zille has done. It is another to be blind to the shadow of our past on our present. This is to flirt with, if not jump into bed with, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder's delusional "empty land" policies.

What is worse is the evocation in Zille's use of the word "refugee" of the oft-repeated accusation that Western Cape is another country. Zille's words and her fierce defence of them remind us once again that many in Western Cape do not see themselves as part of the new South African project. Zille took the debate back to the laager.

Someone, please, take her off Twitter. She is debasing complex arguments with her love for the 140 characters of this medium.

Zille might want to read a complex and nuanced argument about these issues. It is Mbeki's "two nations" speech.

She might also want to read his 1999 inauguration speech, in which he evokes the struggle heroes and says: "They planted a legacy among our people which drives all of us constantly to return to the starting point and say, 'I am my brother's keeper! I am my sister's keeper!' . Our nights cannot but be nights of nightmares while millions of our people live in degrading poverty."

That said, there is something incredibly hypocritical in the one-sided verbal lynching Zille has received this week. It is obscene because the truth is staring us starkly in the face: the black child in Eastern Cape is being consigned to a life of poverty, ignorance and backwardness.

The black child in Eastern Cape is being fatted to become a social grant recipient for the rest of his life. We are driving Eastern Cape residents away from their relatives and homes, and forcing them to find schools for their children in other provinces. They are, at best, migrant scholars, at worst, refugees.

We can scream all we like about Zille's alleged racism. The truth is that it would help if we expended 1% of our anger on what is happening to the black child. That is the real tragedy, the real racism. For what could be more racist than the self-loathing that allows us to keep quiet while black children are crushed - in their thousands if not millions - by the corruption of our very own government and the heartless cruelty of the SA Democratic Teachers' Union?

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