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Southern Africa Report Archive

Salim Vally's article on the deep cracks that have appeared in South Africa's post-apartheid education policies.

vol 14 no 1

Education on trial: The poor speak out
Salim Vally

Printable Version

Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 1, December 1998
Page 27
"South Africa"



Salim Vally is a policy analyst based in the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand and is convenor of the Poverty and Inequality Hearing on Education.

Over the past few weeks the media in South Africa have had a field day engaging in what can only be described as teacher-union bashing. Taking their cue from Deputy President Thabo Mbeki's address to the SADTU (South African Democratic Teachers' Union) congress on September 8 newspaper headlines screamed "Drunken Teachers Lashed" and "Lazy Teachers Warned." Mbeki, who as one unionist explained "has made it his business to bring unions into line [with the government's GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistributive Stategy) policy]" scathingly admonished teachers said to be derelict in pursuit of their professional duties. Moreover, his attacks were not only aimed at "drunken" and "lazy" teachers, but also at teacher militants. The following extract from his belligerently sarcastic speech conveys the essence of his tone (note too the disarming use of the associative "we," Mbeki apparently seeking in this way to signal his affinity with the teachers even while mercilessly castigating them!): "... the members of SADTU, stand out as competent, practitioners of the toyi-toyi. We come across as militant fighters for a better pay cheque at the end of the month. We are seen as excellent tacticians as to when to disrupt the school programme so that we can extort from the Government the greatest material benefit for ourselves and create space for ourselves to improve our own qualifications. We behave in a manner which seems to suggest we are alienated from the revolutionary challenge of the education of our youth and masses and greatly inspired by the value system which motivates the traitor and the criminal."

At the same SADTU congress, the newly elected secretary-general of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, echoed Thabo Mbeki's sentiments when he warned SADTU to avoid "the ultra-leftist recklessness" which sought to "break" the tripartite alliance of the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP. This charge of "ultra-leftism" is regularly used by cabinet ministers against workers and other members of grassroots organizations who express their increasing frustration with the policies of the government. For instance, Derek Hanekom, the land affairs minister, recently launched a stinging attack on the National Land Committee (NLC) after the organization called for the scrapping of the property rights clause in the constitution. The NLC an umbrella organization which champions farm workers' and dispossessed communities rights to the land was dismissed by Hanekom as "stubbornly frivolous" and "ultra-left." Its crime? The NLC in their presentation to the parliamentary land committee had insisted that the property clause was an impediment to the process of land restitution. (Since 1994 less than 1% of South Africa's total farmland area has been redistributed to the land reform's target group, poor, black, rural households: this in stark contrast contrasts starkly with the RDP promise to redistribute 30% of the country's land to black hands in its first five-year term!) Similarly, the constitutional affairs minister Valli Moosa has also labelled the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) as "ultra-left" because of their campaign against the privatization of water and municipal services.

Changing discourses

Why this kind of attack in the education sphere? Education policy, like policies in other sectors, has shifted from the discourse favouring equity, redress and access to one which stresses budgetary constraints, corporate managerialism and fiscal austerity. Despite the development of numerous policy documents intended to provide a scaffolding for schools, districts and provinces to begin to address immediate problems and the demands for social justice, the language in which policies are discussed has changed. In response teacher unions such as SADTU have denounced the national and provincial departments for "not promoting the interests of working class communities by addressing inequalities in the education system." Besides resisting the retrenchment of teachers (which the unions have temporarily stalled by a near strike in mid-June) such unions have criticized the government for failing to prevent overcrowding in schools; failing to prevent additional costs of financing education being passed on to schools and consequently parents; failing to create a funding mechanism to address the disparities between the previously advantaged and disadvantaged; and failing to provide textbooks and other educational resources.

Most analysts of the schooling system in South Africa agree with SADTU that manifest and massive inequalities remain despite marginal improvements to facilities, and attempts to instill a democratic ethos and to increase access. Differentiation in schooling increasingly occurs along class rather than racial lines. There seems to be an expansion instead of a diminution of the resource gap and education quality indicators between richer and poorer schools.

Many have also expressed concern that the rapid growth of private schools, colleges and companies providing private education poses a growing challenge to public education. The extent to which education has become a commodity to be paid for by those who want and can afford it, and from which companies can profit, is seen by the phenomenal growth of corporatized education and training concerns listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. For instance, in this quarter the South African owned Education Investment Corporation (Educor) acquired four colleges in Canada for the sum of about $1.4 million. In South Africa, Educor provides services to 300,000 students through schools and colleges like Damelin, Allenby, Midrand Campus, Academy of Learning and others. By March of this year, the market capitalization of Educor exceeded R2.5 billion (not considering the Canadian acquisition). Educor's education arm has 160 branches and franchises, employing 4,000 academics, lecturers and trainers.

Rich over poor

Small wonder critics contend that the government's macro-economic policies, specifically GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistributive Strategy), strengthens market forces and therefore richer constituencies over poorer communities. And yet the latter communities, as many analysts have pointed out, require resolute state involvement in social sectors in order to rectify historically accumulated inequalities.

Thus, in schools, the impact of fiscal austerity measures has resulted in cuts in textbook supply, the removal of transport subsidies and cleaning services. It has also aggravated the apartheid legacy of a shortfall of classrooms, an absence of basic utilities and infrastructure such as electricity, water, toilets, furniture and libraries, and continues the paucity of training for educators, managers, governing body members and district officials. Moreover, such apartheid inherited inequalities have been further exacerbated not only by underfunding but also by mismanagement, improbity, new forms of wastage, lax administrative and financial mechanisms and the unavailability of reliable data.

Such school funding policies are seen to contradict previous commitments to free pre-primary, primary and secondary education. While decentralization allows local communities a greater role in schooling, it paradoxically also forces them to carry the financial burden of education costs. Although the argument is made that the payment of school fees by some communities will free up resources for poor schools, many observers feel that, in conditions of already existing disparities, this will tend to perpetuate inequality in education, with poorer communities who desperately require quality education only able to afford rudimentary provision.

Recently, the Poverty and Inequality Hearings have shown that members of many impoverished communities cannot even afford fees of less than R100 per year, and this does not include out-of-pocket expenses such as uniforms, transport, food and school initiated sporting and educational excursions. Although it is true that legislation prohibits schools from denying admission to pupils whose parents cannot pay, and allows for the partial or total exemption of parents who earn below a certain income threshold (parents who are not exempted from paying fees can be sued by governing bodies), various strategies can be employed to prevent admission to pupils from poorer families, not least because a preponderance of non-fee paying parents will affect the revenue-raising ability of schools. Note in this regard that the Education Laws Amendment Act allows governing bodies to employ additional teachers from their own funds: in a apparent context of market competition among schools this can only further the differentiation between schools.

Poverty and inequality

As one of several initiatives related initiatives (including the Poverty and Inequality Report - PIR - prepared for the office of the deputy-president and the inter-ministerial committee on poverty and inequality and the Poverty Summit convened by Archbishop Ndungane), the above-mentioned Poverty and Inequality Hearings have highlighted, in recent months, the extent of poverty and inequality in South Africa and provided some clearer sense of the context within which education issues should be viewed.

Convened jointly by the South African NGO Coalition [SANGOCO], the South African Human Rights Commission [SAHRC] and the Commission for Gender Equality [CGE], the Hearings drew evidence primarily from people's lived experience of poverty. Between 31 March and 19 June over 10,000 people participated in the campaign by either attending the hearings, mobilizing communities or making submissions. Not since the Workers' Charter Campaign between 1989 and 1991 have so many people expressed their views in such compelling ways. While thousands of people related stories of impoverishment, dismal drudgery, dashed expectations and an uncaring, aloof and often callous bureaucracy, there was little evidence of sullen apathy or hopeless resignation. Naturally, the lethal mix of brutalizing conditions people find themselves in provides the ideal ingredients for anti-social behaviour such as rape, child abuse, gangsterism and general crime.

And yet, while such morbid symptoms were evident, so too were numerous examples of initiative, creativity and courageous attempts at mere survival against the severe lack of resources and other odds stacked against people. It became clear that, instead of being defensive, government officials need to heed the sentiments of ordinary people who spoke with passion, often using the eloquence of local idiom born of lived experience and struggle. The evidence gathered from the dusty townships, sprawling informal settlements and neglected backwaters has more authority than the glossy, uncritical, state of the art computer software-produced reports of consultants and "experts" which state functionaries increasingly seem to rely on.

The hearings, organized thematically and held in all nine provinces, dealt with employment, education, housing, health, the environment, social security and rural urban development. They were supplemented by background papers compiled by NGOs and research organizations involved in the different fields. The research focussed on the legacy of poverty and inequality in each sector and its impact on people's lives, the extent to which current practices and policies contributes to improved conditions or aggravates poverty and inequality, and recommendations on the measures required to assist groups to access their socio-economic rights. Not surprisingly, the education sector was amongst those focussed upon for a special sub-set of hearings

The Education Hearings

The Education Hearings, as one part of the overall hearings process, were held from the 10th to the 12th June in Thabong, Manguang and Phuthaditjaba in the Free State. The Hearings provided concrete evidence that the inability to afford school fees and other costs such as uniforms, shoes, books, stationery and transport are some of the major obstacles blocking access to education. Amongst the voices heard was that of Ellen Motlakhana who testified that her son in Grade Seven decided to stay at home "after realizing that I didn't have money to buy books." Similarly, Lemile Thabitah Lebone explained that "Because it is Winter he is unable to go to school, he doesn't even have a pair of shoes ... he could not just go to school barefoot, because it is very far." Paulinah Sekhuthe testified that, after losing her job as a domestic worker, she is no longer able to afford the bus fares for transporting her children to school. And Noel Kok of Prieska, described how he and his wife sold their cupboard in order to pay their daughter's examination fees.

A number of people highlighted the shortage of schools within a reasonable distance, as well as the lack of transport, while others spoke of school fees that were unaffordable. While many school governing bodies are sympathetic to these parents, others are not, and have illegally excluded pupils or withheld exam results if pupils did not pay fees. As Violet Nevari observed: "Our new government promised us free education but to our surprise, when we go to school, the kids don't have books or the whole package. The kids are outside the classroom and are being chased home to get money for books."

The lack of electricity, desks, adequate water and toilet facilities in schools were also referred to in a number of submissions. Overcrowded classrooms continue to be a standard feature in poor communities. Frustrated by unfulfilled promises, many poor communities, particularly women in these communities, scraped together their meagre resources in order to provide rudimentary education facilities. Annah Mokgabane said that the pre-school in Bofula "is a little shack built by the community. There is nothing that the children can entertain themselves with within the pre-school." Adam Dichaba explained how parents were bearing the costs of running pre-schools: "We are paying for those teachers because we know the need. The government promised us that it will help us sometime, but it has done nothing so far."

There was also the question of the link between education and employment. Although many hoped that education would provide the key to the door out of poverty, Konela Lekhafola, speaking for the Free State Unemployed Graduate Initiative (FSUGI), soberly reminded those assembled at the Hearings that thousands of graduates are unemployed and have no employment opportunities. Many people like Johanna Sebetlela expressed the fear that her younger brother would drop out from school because "so many standard tens have passed but they are just roaming around because there are no jobs." While FSUGI aims to discourage anti-social acts by getting "young graduates to assist with voluntary services in the community," Konela felt at the very minimum they require some form of basic subsistence and training to sustain their activities. In the long-term Konela insisted that "education alone is not enough. We need a new economic system based on need and not on profit." After attempting to meet with different government ministries, Konela has come to the realization that "It is not us that cause the problem but government policies and deficits." He challenged government to set up a commission for unemployed people: "If we as graduates can't find work then what about those without degrees. ... We need to be involved in finding the solution."

Golf courses

In addition to the verbal testimonies, the Education Theme co-ordinators received scores of written submissions from parents, teachers, school governing body members, ECD and adult education and training providers and learners, student and youth organizations, trade unions, NGO's and church groups. These ranged from the carefully worded, logically argued views of research organizations to the poignant testimonies of some of the most marginalized such as child workers and prisoners.

Many of these submissions provide new insights into the problems confronting education in South Africa. The Network Against Child Labour for instance show that the vast majority of child workers attribute their suspension of study to the poverty of their parents and an even greater majority ache to return to school. It is not, however, only the expenses incurred to pay school fees that induce parents to withdraw their children from school. It is also the potential of the children to help the family with some earnings, however small these may seem. Besides school fees, the additional costs of transport, stationery and uniforms are a great burden to poor parents. The Network proposes that not only should education be free but the general upliftment of the overall economic conditions of the parents is the only solution.

Marcus Solomons, himself denied access to the soul-enriching company of children for many years during his stint as a political prisoner on Robben Island and now working for the Children's Resource Centre, argues that children learn primarily through play and yet that activity "which is essential for the development of the child is, for the majority of the children in South Africa, accomplished in the most unhealthy, increasingly dangerous and most unstimulating of environments." Solomons points out that Cape Town has twelve impeccably groomed and manicured golf courses ranked as amongst the best in the world. Yet there are no parks for children on the Cape Flats which even come close to the quality and facilities of the golf courses. He indignantly concludes that "what this in effect means is that the average white South African male (with a few black one joining them of late) has much more playing space than the average black South African child. We cannot think of a better example to demonstrate the immorality of the situation in this country at present."

Testimony after testimony reminded us of the sacrifices people made to end Apartheid and how at the point of victory the fruits of their labour are "snatched away by a new elite." This view was expressed by a father of three children at a time when his children's school had been closed because of "unhygienic conditions" resulting from the retrenchment of cleaning staff. This parent, also the chairperson of the Phoenix Community Education Forum, declared that "together with thousands of other people I picketed demanding `free education,' `accessible education now,' `equal education,' `housing for all,' before the 1994 elections. I was arrested many times. The leaders now rich and famous have distanced themselves from the people. They have traded in our rallying cry `all power to the people' for `all reverence to GEAR'."

All reverence to GEAR?

Interestingly enough, the government's own Poverty and Inequality Report (produced by a group led by Julian May of the University of Natal) itself registered the fact that South Africa's distribution of income and wealth is among the most unequal in the world, with over 50% of households, or 19 million people, being classified "poor." The PIR also specifically criticized the assumption that economic growth would, through a trickle down process, reach the poor and that all that is required is a freeing up of markets and the removal of state controls. However the compilers of the PIR report attempt to demonstrate that government policies and programmes do reflect a broad commitment to reducing poverty - even while suggesting that more of the current expenditure needs to be targeted specifically towards the poor, (and suggesting, too, that severe weaknesses in planning and implementation exist).Perhaps the major limitation of the PIR, however, is that it recommends a reprioritization of expenditure within the given budgetary limitations without exploring the possibilities of going beyond these limits.

In the Poverty and Inequality Hearings the poor identified for themselves a range of obstacles preventing the eradication of poverty. At the conclusion of these nationwide hearings the convenors arranged a list of responsibilities for politicians, government officials, the private sector and civil society in order to ensure that the fight to end poverty becomes the nation's priority.

In the education sector this must involve an increase in the allocation of resources to poorer schools, a revisiting of the school funding model and the elimination of the waste evidenced in the high salaries of functionaries and exorbitant consultancy costs. It is also vital to institute strict financial and administrative mechanisms in order to prevent corruption and increase accountability. Simultaneously, it is necessary to provide resources for the effective training of educators, governing body members and officials with responsibilities at all levels of the system. Obviously, it is not a question of merely throwing money at the problem. It is also necessary to augment the information systems with reliable data in order to make informed policy decisions. (For example, at present few provinces can give precise figures as to the number of teachers in their provinces, and yet we are told, the teachers who resist retrenchment say that there is an excess of teachers!)

More generally, it became evident that school reforms cannot be successful unless there is a concomitant attempt to uplift the impoverished socio-economic status of the communities most schools are located in. For many the social cost of privileging deficit reduction above the goal of providing quality education and other basic needs is too high. In any case, the assumption that resources are just not available needs to be questioned. It can be argued instead that this is indeed obtainable but that it requires firm political will to challenge dominant interests. Small wonder that the Hearings convenors suggested a broad programme for government officials and politicians that would include: reversing GEAR; increasing social spending and meeting basic needs; renegotiating the Apartheid debt; and treating poor and their concerns with far more respect and dignity. Would such a programme of creating the resources for genuine equality not also have to involve such things as cutting down on the unnecessary annual expenditure of R10 billion on defense, and reducing tax concessions to big business? And isn't just a little too glib - and, under present circumstances in South Africa, much too callous - merely to brand such preoccupations as "ultra-leftist," implying in that way that they have been dealt with?

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