A Gauteng High Court ruling, on the unconstitutionality of barring a child from admission to a Model C school on the basis of capacity, conjures up memories of the forced integration of tertiary institutions in the US in the 1960s.
The black-and-white still photography of the time shows the grim-faced and jowly governor of Alabama, George Wallace, arriving on the campus of the state university on June 11, 1963 to stop the court-ordered integration and registration of two black students. The pictures also show the armed Alabama National Guard – federalised by and under the direction of President JF Kennedy – having to protect the students from a lynch mob.
Kennedy’s oratory on the issue still reverberates: “This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
In the previous year, he faced a similar crisis when 2 000 white students at the University of Mississippi, armed with lead pipes and guns, tried to prevent the first ever black student, James Meredith, from enrolling. The Kennedy oratory and the principles of constitutionalism and the law came to bear.
He said: “Our nation is founded on the principle that observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty and defiance of the law is the surest road to tyranny.”
An over-the-top analogy to a situation in which a school governing body in Joburg’s northern suburbs is simply trying to use the law to prevent its well-endowed premises from being overrun by (black) pupils from poor communities?
In rejecting the governing body’s application to set aside an order of the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) to force the admission of the Grade 1 pupil to the school earlier this year, Judge Boissie Mbha of the Gauteng High Court said this week: “It cannot be disputed that the racially discriminatory system of education spending under apartheid has bequeathed to this country and the Gauteng province in particular a public schooling system in which some schools… are much better resourced than most other schools in the system.”
He said further that school admission policies could easily be manipulated, leaving room for priviledged schools to group together to close the doors of learning to the underpriviledged children who were not from the rich.
“While the applicant’s desire to offer the best possible education for its pupils is laudable, the constitution does not permit the interests of a few pupils to override the right of all other pupils in the area to receive basic education,” the judge said.
Judge Mbha’s Kennedy-esque words have a wider implication for our society and carry a warning: South Africans must learn from the American experience and the mistakes of the Lebanese in the 1970s to prevent cities like Joburg from becoming like Beirut where islands of privilege and excellence are surrounded by poverty and divided communities; a society of those inside and the others on the outside.
Already, the “Beirut signs” are visible in our failure to properly build the country’s state and public institutions across the entire society. At last count, there were dozens of solid brick-and-mortar schools in Soweto shut and boarded up because of low enrolment.
The Gauteng Department of Education concedes: schooling in places like Soweto is dysfunctional.
Parents are voting with their feet and taking their children across town.
Gauteng residents prefer to pay R50 billion a year to private security companies to protect their homes and businesses rather than ensure the SAPS fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide security and safety. In some privileged parts of Joburg, armed security staff have virtually taken over from the SAPS and behave like Beirut’s armed militias.
In my recent quest to find out why a nephew was denied admission to a Model C school – and to have the denial overturned – I ascertained the intake for Grade 7 for next year was oversubscribed by 65 pupils. It struck me that a school with at least six cricket fields could not make room for five dozen unsuccessful pupils.
Implicit in the judge’s words is a caution that Model C schools which have become “islands of privilege” are not sustainable in a situation where schooling for the majority (African child) is a mess.
While fixing the public school system in poorer communities is firmly the responsibility of the state, the rest can’t simply lock their doors on the problem.
It is even more extraordinary for a Model C institution, which draws its finances largely from the public purse, to believe its admission policy should be its sole preserve.
As Kennedy would have argued, what’s the morality of barring a child from a public school when its parents pay taxes for the institution’s upkeep?