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When President Jacob Zuma opened the Peter Mokaba memorial lecture at Mankweng village in Polokwane two years ago, he used his customary welcome. It was to comrades and friends. But if he was honest, he would have added: I come to bury our children, not to praise them.
Of course, praise was plastered all over his speech.
He asked what South Africans could learn from Comrade Peter’s memory that would help free young people from the shackles of economic oppression. Unsurprisingly, he found that the greatest tribute would be education, which the ANC government “had prioritised”.
If it weren’t so inappropriate, we should have laughed. Prioritised? In Limpopo? Yeah, right.
But the president went on as if we hadn’t been fooled before, saying that everything we do must answer the needs of our children. After all, the government had set ambitious targets to produce engineers and technicians, and mathematics and science teachers – even though it treats the children in at least 5 000 of its schools in Limpopo like second-class citizens.
The president has made pretending that all is well into an art form. Also two years ago, he stood before the nation on the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom out of Victor Verster Prison and spoke about how the government wanted to improve the ability of children to read, write and count.
Unless we did this, he said, we would not improve the quality of education where targets were “simple but critical”. Children and their teachers should be in school, in class, on time for seven hours a day. And for a flourish, said the president, children would need books in all 11 languages.
Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale has repeated the same thing to his legislature in Lebowakgomo. He likes to cite the Freedom Charter, where it says that the doors of learning and culture are open to all. He commits to “the letter and spirit of this undertaking”. He talks about “modernised programmes that comply with the current needs”.
To this, we should say, blah blah. And, if we were children, we would say blah, blah, fishpaste.
The delivery of textbooks is nearly six months late, and it’s not only about a court deadline that was missed. It’s about respect and love for the most vulnerable people in our country. What has happened in Limpopo shows us the government does not care about our children, no matter the excuses it so readily spits out.
Last year, SA moved up four places to 50th position on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. That spot kept us as the highest-ranked country in sub-Saharan Africa and the second-placed among the Brics economies. Wonderful, you might say, until we re-examine the details of our ranking and remember that, when it comes to primary education, we were not in the 50th spot, but at 125. The quality of our educational system dropped us even further, to 133 and, to delve even deeper, our maths and science education put us at 138th in the world.
There is no way of spinning that in a positive way. It is almost hopeless.
The ANC has neglected the children at those 5 000 schools in Limpopo. It is denying them the opportunity to live a better life. It allowed a province to give out a dubious textbook contract worth more than R320 million, and then allowed it to fail to deliver those textbooks.
Yet its leadership carries on and on about how education is a constitutional right.
Cosatu has praised civil society group Section27, which took the government to court to compel it to deliver the textbooks to ensure young South Africans really do receive that to which they are entitled by section 29 of the constitution. Yet even then, the government could not do right by our children, entrenching what the labour federation’s Patrick Craven correctly called a “crisis of institutionalised mediocrity and incompetence”.
If only Zuma, Mathale, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and their mediocre and incompetent officials could be completely honest about the fact that it’s not only the textbooks that are the problem. Many township and rural schools are in an appalling state, especially in terms of hygiene and sanitation. It seems there are no real norms and standards.
It’s become a bit of a dark national joke that there are not enough desks and chairs. There are too many schoolgirls getting pregnant, and there’s a high level of sexual violence in schools. Corporal punishment continues. There aren’t enough libraries. Learner transport and school nutrition programmes don’t work a lot of the time.
Even though the national government put the Limpopo education department under administration in December, there has been little success. It’s just embarrassing to look back at the moment when Motshekga announced the Limpopo matric results on January 5 – nearly six months ago – and promised that all learners would have books when schools opened in Limpopo.
Yet the Publishers’ Association of SA confirmed that not one textbook had been ordered by January 16 – 11 days after the minister’s speech and two days before school started.
Where is the oversight from the Parliament’s basic education portfolio committee? Why haven’t Limpopo’s MEC for basic education, Namane Masemola and the administrator of the department, Mzwandile Matthews, been fired? There is no real catch-up plan for children and the minister says there’s no one to dismiss.
And where is Zuma on this? Too afraid to get hapless education officials, most of them deployees, to sign performance contracts?
That’s apparently what his education minister would have liked but it seems the president is, perhaps, a little too concerned about keeping everyone onside before Mangaung in December.
If there are no textbooks for Grades 1, 2 and 3, this will impact on the yearly assessments that come around in September.
The many wonderful teachers who operate with scant resources, who battle to cope with seeing the children in their classes treated with such contempt, will probably be blamed. We can’t help thinking particularly of Selowe Primary School in Silvermine, where children are still learning under trees.
In a normal democratic society, what has happened in Limpopo should mean that Zuma will not be re-elected. But ours is an abnormal society.
Our president is presiding over the burial of many of our children, and sadly, as Mark Antony said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the evil that men do, lives after them.