Where are the leaders who can end inequality in our schools?

14 September 2017 - 07:18
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

Sometimes we make a deal with our consciences. We see something wrong and then pretend we did not see it. In one province you can drive within 60 minutes from the most expensive private boys' school on the continent (let's call it King's), with stunning colonial architecture and lush green lawns that seem to run for miles, to a mud hut school (let's call it Kagiso).

Same country, same government, and the same education system operating under the same constitution which declares that "everyone has the right to basic education".

What these two schools represent is so obviously wrong but we let it slide. Perhaps we feel helpless in the face of the enormity of the equality challenge. Maybe we feel it is the government's responsibility; after all, the Bill of Rights as it pertains to education also speaks of the "redress" of past discrimination and comparable standards. Or it might be that our children are in the better schools and our selfish instincts kick in: at least my child is getting a good deal out of this not-so-new South Africa.

So we look the other way.

Whatever your reason, it is time to talk about inequality for two reasons. The one is strategic. When you ignore inequality for long enough it comes back to bite you with a vengeance. In a country where violence has become part of our social DNA, we don't just disagree. We burn. As found out by the Uber taxi drivers in Gauteng or the staff at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where classrooms on the Cape Town campus were set alight this week, or any South African woman whose crime is being female in this violently misogynistic country. When we allow grievance to simmer for so long in a country such as ours, nobody is safe.

But there is a higher, more profound reason for talking about inequality. It goes to the question of social justice. This we also know all too well. It is wrong for a few to be so outrageously privileged and others, the majority, to be left behind. Unless you believe that the poor are the architects of their own misfortune - in which case please stop reading this article - then you know we need to act on this injustice. But where to begin?

I admire privileged schools that reach out to disadvantaged schools; this weekend I will be speaking at such a joint effort between former white and township schools in Fish Hoek. Well-established schools that take soup pots to flooded townships in winter must be encouraged, as should the family that puts up money for a bursary at a top school for the domestic worker's child. Good. But those kind efforts do not resolve the problem of King's and Kagiso. For redressing that glaringly visible picture of injustice, you need a government.

It is my firm conviction that the present government lacks both the educational ideas and the political will to resolve this injustice. Our government also looks the other way. It has in the past shown contempt for movements such as Equal Education, with its modest attempts to deal with the problem of unequal infrastructures for teaching and learning. The Ministry of Basic Education pretends matric results are getting better as if the test scores of township children, however improved, ever resolve the vastly unequal post-school chances of children from King's compared to those from Kagiso.

I find the ongoing media fixation with political personalities and intra-party shenanigans so disheartening. Cyril versus NDZ? Really now.

Nobody asks the more fundamental question, namely, what kind of governmental leadership can act justly and wilfully to end the scourge of inequality in our schools?

When this government, like others, fails to resolve these structural problems in education or the economy, they will resort to all kinds of populist performances.

Yes, allowable hairstyles is an important cultural issue - but for heaven's sake, it is not the major fault line in our massively unequal school system. The fury generated around the issue of girls' hair affects a privileged few and is a distraction from deeper problems in the unequal distribution of educational opportunities. Forcing a former white school to take one more black pupil than its teacher-to-pupil ratios allow is also a storm in teacup yet it generates enormous political mileage for media- savvy MECs. One hateful teacher at St John's makes the headlines for weeks.

In the meantime, King's and Kagiso remain unresolved.

We need a new government that can deliver social justice for the children of Kagiso, and of King's.

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