Parents selling out children
The man on the other side of the telephone is adamant: "Even if this lasts to 2020, the schools will remain closed unless the mayor resigns."
I tell him that I am confused, dumbstruck. Would he really deny education to the poorest children in the rural, disadvantaged areas of Olifantshoek and Kuruman? Is education not the only way out of poverty for the children? How could children be held hostage over a political tussle with a mayor? Did he not himself have children in those schools?
"Yes, my daughter is in school here. She is not going back until the mayor resigns."
It is difficult to check the veracity of his claim that the parents and the children took a resolution to close the schools in these areas.
It is now more than two months since 40 or more schools have remained closed, according to one media report.
So far, the politicians from "national" have not been able to end the boycott. Roads were blocked, houses stoned, and a few schools torched. All of this because of a single person, the mayor.
I ask the man on the phone: "What on earth did this mayor do that caused you to take such a dramatic step and close learning centres for children?"
He was wound up by now.
"The mayor is lazy and useless. There has been no service delivery and no work on infrastructure".
Their other concern in this area is the demand for tarred roads.
I could not judge whether the big people were having a partisan political fight here that has little to do with services. Nor would it be possible to know whether a few were intimidating the many to stay away from schools. What I did know, without question, was that what was happening in these rural Northern Cape schools was a warning of a deadly serious future awaiting all South Africans.
From the other side of the country, in Port Elizabeth, I receive an urgent e-mail from a stranger on the same day as I talked to the man in Olifantshoek.
"Ours is the first school in Port Elizabeth to be built in 15 years and it opened in January this year. Due to the pathetic behaviour of the education department, the parents of the school have decided to close its doors on September 10."
"No, not another school closed by parents," I thought.
Then came the reasons: some teachers had not been paid for eight months; no textbooks had yet been received for grades R-7; no money was yet received for operational costs; and only one workbook was received for the seven grades. So, on August 29, the parents closed the school "until the department of education addresses these challenges".
It is perfectly possible that in both the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape, the people who closed the schools might have legitimate complaints. What I do not understand is how parents and teachers could even consider cutting off learning to the poorest children. But what does the closure of schools say about our society?
It says children are being used as bargaining chips for tarred roads and textbook delivery. It says we have lost faith in the value of education as a public good. That should worry us all for even in the most oppressive days of apartheid when children were being shot, imprisoned and tortured, there were powerful voices within the radical community fighting the reckless campaign for "liberation now, education later".
Now, in our hard-won democracy, "the people" are holding the metaphorical gun to the heads of our children with the blunt warning, "deliver or else no education".
But there is further cause for concern.
Our government seems to have no political authority or on-the-ground credibility to settle these disputes in favour of the children.
The allegedly corrupt mayor will remain in place in Olifantshoek. The teachers will remain unpaid in the Eastern Cape. And the schools will remain closed as yet another generation of young people face a future without employment.
Expect to see more hostage-taking of our children. Angry parents and street-level thugs have realised that burning tyres in the streets or torching school libraries could get you arrested with a criminal charge against your name, but nobody will criminalise you for keeping children out of school.