File photo: Armand Hough/ANA
‘School bells are ringing loud and clear; vacation’s over, school is here,” said the late novelist and memoirist, Winifred C Marshall. Indeed, school is here, because today is the start of the 2018 school year.

Thousands of pupils will be starting Grade 1. Many of them are nervous, they are crying hysterically and they don’t want to be left at school all by themselves.

Others are just stressless and excited at the thought of being around scores of pupils. It is their parents who seem so stressed looking at their children being so oblivious of the magnitude of what the first day of school means.

It’s the beginning of a brand new chapter of their lives.

Then there is a place such as Pankop, in Mpumalanga. Our village symbolises poverty.

Just a few weeks ago, many parents were stressed about what their children were going to wear for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. They had no new clothes for them. But their stress was far from over. Today, like the past years I have spent in our village schools on opening days, there are kids who are wearing torn socks and worn-out shirts and pants on their first day of school.

Somehow, these kids have to start facing the beautiful/cruel world on their own. A child is suddenly exposed to warm and friendly kids, some are going to be his or her best buddies, and then there is the other side of mockery, the intentional and unintentional bullying and the vulnerability that comes with all that.

It’s all beautiful to witness. As Malcolm X put it: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

Kabelo Chabalala is the founder of the Young Men Movement

These pupils are starting a journey to prepare their futures and ensure that tomorrow is brighter than today.

But we need to look at their needs and the concerns of their parents. Even in the rural areas, buying a school uniform is one of the biggest expenses for parents in January. The uniforms do not consist of plain white or blue shirts with grey or black pants.

The rural schools have caught the bug of giving more prescriptive demands. The uniforms have special badges and colours which are not easy to get hold of.

Some schools require parents to find the means to make it to Pretoria, which is about 80km away. Other schools have their uniform suppliers some 60km away from home, in Bela-Bela.

The school uniform business is monopolised and is becoming very lucrative. It has an annual turnover of about R10 billion.

Many pupils in our villages walk an average of 3km to reach their respective schools. This explains why most of their school shoes wear out fast.

Their shirts too get worn out due to the scorching sun, and the washing of the same shirt twice if not three times a week in order to have a clean shirt.

Indeed the school policies do not speak to the socio-economic status of the inhabitants of the village. It is bad enough that parents struggle to put food on their tables. Something must be done to ensure that school uniforms are reasonably priced and that the school policies are revised.

I’m glad that at least parents have raised concern in Gauteng about the increasing prices of uniforms.

As a result of complaints about monopolies, the Competition Commission launched an investigation into the matter.

Sipho Ngwema of the Competition Commission said the probe followed up complaints about the price of school uniforms being driven up by the non-competitive nature of the sector.

Let’s fix the policies and open the uniform business to more competition.

* Kabelo Chabalala is the founder of the Young Men Movement (YMM). Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @KabeloJay; Facebook: Kabelo Chabalala.

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

The Star