Although this classroom is empty in this picture, up to 70 learners are sometimes crammed into one room. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng
Even the ANC’s own Minister for Women, Susan Shabangu, has publicly stated that schools have become “high-risk” spaces for learners, and the current Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill makes no attempt whatsoever to address violence, bullying, sexual abuse and illegal corporal punishment by teachers.

And then, of course, there’s school-stress suicide. If none of that is enough to scare you into joining the current home-education boom, Michael Kwet from Yale Law School Privacy Lab has just blown the whistle on a whole new hazard. According to his paper published in Internet-related Journal First Monday, on December 4, 2017, significant details of Operation Phakisa for Education (OPE), initiated by President Zuma, have been kept secret.

Kwet’s interviews with several anonymous “high-level policymakers in the department of basic education and the department of telecommunications” reveal possible reasons why. Plans for our children, made without our knowledge or consent, could include long-term intimate personal surveillance and psychological profiling by companies such as Microsoft.

Apparently, sending your child to school could mean selling out your child's privacy, their most intimate personal data and detailed personality information - far beyond what Google tracks - right through their school years all the way into adulthood, maybe even for life.

In spite of the recent Privacy of Personal Information (Popi) Act intended to prevent such abuses, it seems that non-consensual surveillance and data harvesting could be exactly what OPE is rolling out in South African schools under the guise of “ICT to support learning and teaching” (

Has a secret strategy been driving recent education policy? In the light of Kwet’s revelations, puzzling aspects of recent education strategy could make sinister sense. Is the Bela Bill being rushed into law before the truth about OPE comes out? Is this why Minister Lesufi is excited to cram 60, even 70 children into each class in spite of the educational and discipline disasters sure to result?

Is this why he wants to disallow home education, or at least make sure that all home learners are tightly controlled by the Department of Basic Eductaion (DBE), and that all cottage schools and tutor centres send their students back to his schools, regardless of which offers the better education?

Is this why the DBE is prioritising expensive ICT roll-out while children still drown in pit toilets?

Is this why the Bela Bill ignores the obligation to progressively implement children’s rights, makes no provision for learner participation in shaping their education, and chooses instead to limit even the voices of parents and teachers - because they don’t want us empowered to complain?

Is the otherwise crazy-looking six-year jail sentence for school-refusing parents being put in place to intimidate us into consent?

Is all of this to make the South African big data package as manageable and attractive as possible to the DBE’s local and international partners?

Will OPE become South Africa’s new e-tolls debacle?

Just as e-tolls arrived as a disastrous fait accompli, in the same way “hooking children and schools into surveillance-based corporate platforms can have deep and long-standing consequences for South Africa’s digital revolution. Freedom- respecting technologies could be chosen at the outset, and it will be difficult to switch once particular options are rooted deep inside the school system,” Kwet warns.

Will our education budget drain away into big corporation accounts? OPE was instigated by Jacob Zuma, and thanks to the secrecy that shrouds it, it’s unclear what’s really going on. Is the DBE embracing partnerships with big data for profit and powerful tools to indoctrinate learners and control political dissent? Or is it just hypnotised by bells and whistles it doesn’t understand, not fully aware of the danger to our youth?

One of Kwet’s interviewees expressed the opinion that it’s “too expensive for the government to protect the privacy of learners”, while others felt that ethical issues could simply be left for later.

“A discussion about People’s Technology for People’s Freedom has never been more pressing in South Africa,” Kwet insists.

Section 32 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa assures us that “Everyone has the right of access to any information held by the State.”

The public story is that OPE is a wonderful transformation initiative to bring ICT to our schools. If so, why has everyone involved been gagged with non-disclosure agreements?

Is OPE being implemented unethically, even illegally?

As Kwet points out “the shift to e-education has critical privacy implications that could drastically curtail civil rights and liberties in SA education and society.”

The Protection of Personal Privacy (Popi) Act was passed into law in South Africa precisely to prevent abuses of this kind.

Aside from the right to privacy and protection of personal data, children also have the right to participate in all decisions that affect them.

This not only means giving informed consent to be profiled, it also means they should have a voice in how technology is used in their education.

The content and process of the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill currently on the table demonstrates that the DBE does not consider children’s voices, participatory and democratic rights to be any kind of priority.

Closed doors and secrecy are also reminiscent of the tactics of the apartheid regime.

Education can create masters and servants under apartheid, education for the masses was tailored to create separate classes of masters and servants. ICT in education could deliberately or inadvertently accomplish the same thing.

Sugata Mitra has shown us for 20 years how powerfully children self-educate when able to engage technology on their own terms. Children given free access to ICT tools and allowed to explore, soon learn digital mastery, including how to surf information, interrogate it, and use it proactively for their own creative endeavours.

Children who spend 12 years being digitally profiled and manipulated will likely experience digital puppeteering of their activities as normal.

Those who are continually subjected to digital profiling and direction, could learn to be steered and controlled by technology.

Subjected to adaptive learning technologies, children whose digital life happens primarily in school, could become tomorrow’s servants, while children wealthy enough for computer experience outside school settings persist as masters - entrenching the class divide in South Africa.

As Douglas Rushkoff pointed out, our children must learn either to “program or be programmed.”

Digital learning technology could offer our children a lot of help - in certain circumstances, and when responsibly used. But it’s far from being a magic bullet.

When it comes to basic literacy, the latest PIRLS report revealed that most South African Grade 9 learners can sound out words - but don’t know what they mean.

Digitally adaptive learning technology is unlikely to help much with creativity, critical thinking, or social skills.

Profiling a child for purposes of digital manipulation to bend their learning into line with a government-sanctioned curriculum in spite of lack of interest and personal value, is not a PLP. It is digitally- assisted brainwashing.

The real power of technology in education is that it makes textbooks and curricula redundant, as children become empowered to find the information they need, learning how to learn and research without being spoon-fed.

If the DBE truly has our children’s educational best interests at heart, they will give parents and children a voice to help shape the way that technology is used in education.

Kwet assures us that it’s perfectly viable to use the best of ICT in South African education without abuse of privacy or appropriation of personal data.

The Popi Act means that you have the right to give or withhold consent.

Knowing that not all the facts have been shared with you, and that the results could be life-long, what will you decide?

What will you allow in 2018?

* Clements is from Democratic Education SA.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.