Yesterday I witnessed an incredible story of social media coming to the aid of Nic, a young cancer patient who will soon go for radiated iodine therapy. The therapy’s unfortunate side effect is that it’ll make Nic radioactive for a few days, so he’ll have to go into isolation after which his clothes and much loved stuffed rabbit will be incinerated, as they too would have residual radiation.
Nic’s dad posted an appeal on Facebook for an identical rabbit, which was then blogged about and turned in to a #Rabbit4Nic Twitter campaign that trended. Radio 702, Cape Talk 567 and the Cape Argus picked up on the story, too.
Please read it. The campaign
still hasn’t found an identical rabbit (if you can help, please do), but found the rabbit for Nic. It’s heartening to see what lengths people are willing to go to ease the suffering of children. Nic’s story reminded me of the power of social media and made me think that if people are willing to do this for Nic, a kid they barely know, surely they’d be willing to get involved in ending the suffering of other kids.
In this week’s Economist, the cover story is Cry, the beloved country: South Africa’s sad decline, in which they write “South Africa is sliding downhill while the rest of the continent is clawing its way up”.
The article presents these cold facts: “Education is a disgrace: according to the World Economic Forum, South Africa ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd in science and maths.”
Perhaps this is why most of us don’t seem to care enough to do something to effect systemic change on education in this country. Basic education’s failure is presented as an economic problem, far removed from the crushing effect it has on the lives of pupils subjected to it. They, too, become radioactive and are isolated, but it never wears off.
In today’s Mail and Guardian you will read about some of these children. Victoria John writes, “Without desks or chairs in their classrooms, many Eastern Cape pupils sit on empty mealiemeal sacks, beer crates or bricks, bending over double as they attempt to write in their exercise books. Yet they are the lucky ones – some pupils have to sit on bare floors.”
Later in the article, John quotes the Centre for Child Law’s Anne Skelton, who says, “If you visit these schools, you will see children trying to learn around desks that are falling apart. You will see five children crowding around one broken desk. You will see children sitting on the floor. You will see that proper learning cannot take place under these circumstances.”
“We are not talking about any luxuries here; we are talking about the basics,” she adds.
The basics–which, by the way the department of education admitted it stil hadn’t got right. In its annual report, the department said it fell far short of its target of ensuring that 88% of public schools had the “very basic level of infrastructure”, whatever that means. It only achieved 55%. That was not the only target it missed. Almost half of what it set out to do at the beginning of the previous financial year remained unfinished at the end of it.
Last week I asked the people of Twitter: What do you do in your everyday lives to hold our elected officials to account?
The responses were curious if not understandable. Most people asked for suggestions, others were cynical about whether they could do anything and some admitted to doing nothing. We’re a young democracy and uninitiated in what it takes to make this work. But next year we turn 19. It’s about time we take up the responsibilities of a full-grown, young adult democracy.
On 20 November, the Bhisho High Court hears Equal Education’s case to compel Angie Motshekga to promulgate norms and standards for schools infrastructure, which would more accurately define the nebulous target of “the very basic level of infrastructure” that the department targets and fails to achieve every year. It would mean the department will have to declare buildings like the ones in the picture unacceptable and redirect resources toward fixing them.
Here is what the Fiscal and Financial Commission (FFC) – the constitutional institution that advises the state on financial and fiscal matters – said would happen if Motshekga set schools infrastructure norms and standards:
“The norms and standards for schools infrastructure will go a long way in strengthening the way in which learners are taught, enhancing teaching effectiveness, as well improvements in student learning outcomes. In so far as the primary purpose is to promote an equitable provision of an enabling school physical teaching and learning environment should be welcomed by all those that are concerned with consolidating the education system in South Africa.”
But Motshekga does not welcome them. Is she not concerned? Using taxpayer money, she is opposing Equal Education’s action with the shocking argument that these kids can wait. She stands alone on this. The provincial education MECs, named respondents in the case, do not oppose norms and standards.
Here’s where you, as a citizen concerned in the future of this country and invested in its success, come in. This is as equally important as voting.
Parliament’s portfolio committee on basic education, whose MPs you elected and are your proxies, is supposed to exercise oversight of government’s work in basic education. The committee has the power to call Motshekga, or anyone, before it in matters related to education. It’s unimaginable what explanations Motshekga has given them thus far to justify why the department continues to fail these kids or why there have been no consequences for its woeful performance (remember: 132nd in the world out of 144). Can there really be an excuse for why she is wasting time and taxpayer money to defend not implementing a policy that has received an overwhelming endorsement from education specialists and that would make such a difference in the lives of pupils?
My answer is no. I’m writing to Hope Malgas, chairperson of parliament’s portfolio committee on basic education, demanding that she call Motshekga before the committee to explain why she is wasting time and taxpayer funds in fighting the court case and in effect dooming millions of kids to learning in an unsanitary and unsafe environment that is not conducive to education. I’m going to remind Ms Malgas what the FFC said and remind her, cordially and firmly, that as someone whose will she represents, I will not accept the excuse that these kids right to education is subject to “budgetary constraints” and “the limitation of available resources”, as Motshekga is set to argue in the court case.
I’m going to tell Ms Malgas that the department’s poor performance can’t be ignored and she should use every power available to her as the committee’s chairperson to ensure that there are consequences.
My request to you reading this is that you do the same and you tell your friends to do the same and their friends and so forth. I’m not going to give you a standard template on which you only need affix your name. Making this democracy work requires, well, work. Her e-mail address is hmalgas[at]parliament.gov.za. You can call her, too. Her office number is 021-403-3764 and mobile number is 083-709-8450.
This part is optional but it be great if you could copy me in on tomolefe[at]gmail.com. Names redacted, I’ll pass on your e-mails to Equal Education to see if they can use them in their lobbying and I’ll use them to lodge a query with the Presidential hotline, which apparently has a 70% success rate in resolving queries. I won’t spam you or sell your information. I’ll only e-mail you with updates of our query to the hotline.
If you’re a radio-show producer, it’d be great if you could call Ms Malgas live on air and ask her these questions, and get her to commit to calling Motshekga to answer for all of this.
This is only a fraction of what it takes to make this democracy work, but it’s a start. Like I said, we’re all very new at this and we’ve got to start somewhere. If you’re going to tweet about this, please use the #fixourschools hashtag, which is what Equal Education has been using in the build-up to the court case next month.