“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it was stupid”. These words by Albert Einstein ring true as it relates to the South African education system and how young people interact with this complex and nuanced system. Education, when done right, is an opportunity to steward the minds of young people in order for them to unearth their strengths, to challenge their beliefs and to learn new ways of being.
In South Africa today, it is no secret that some people believe that there have been huge improvements made regarding education and schooling since 1994. The post-apartheid government has indeed inherited a divided and highly unequal education system. These inequalities are most expressed in the racial differences found in how much is spent on each child. Even though racial differences in spending were reduced significantly in the years leading up to 1994, the amount spent per child in a white school was two and a half times larger than on black children in urban areas and five times larger than black students in the most impoverished rural areas.
Within a COVID-19 context, this means that every child who has had to be a student in 2020 has experienced different education systems and different educational resources. Students in white schools have been able to transition fairly smoothly towards distant learning and online learning as they were coming from schools and homes which had access to the internet, laptops and access to a quiet and conducive learning environment. While a black student in the urban areas and impoverished rural areas were left without online resources to continue learning while at home. This was because with every student and parent being at home due to the closure of economic activities, black students found themselves in homes which were unable to provide a conducive and quiet learning environment. How is it that 26 years into democracy, we still find ourselves as a country, having two different education systems for two different envisioned learners? The reality of inequality within the education system does not only affect schooling, but indeed has lasting consequences in every area of the country, this therefore means, addressing these issues is both urgent and necessary.
Education in the time of COVID-19
At the start of each year parents, teachers and pupils wait with great expectations to receive the results of students who would have written their exams the previous year. However, the marks that will be released at the start of 2021 will again leave a bitter taste on the mouths of many pupils who found themselves in schools that were under-resourced and unprepared during the tumultuous year that is 2020.
Every year when the matric results are announced the country celebrates the thousands of young people who have written and passed their matric exam while at the same time mourn the thousands that did not make it to their matric examination. One of the things that the matric results remind us of each year is how our current education is failing black youth in urban and rural areas. In a 2019 report, education analyst Nic Spaul highlighted that in 2007, ‘1 002 500 pupils registered for grade 1 and yet only 512 700 wrote the matric exams and only 400 761 passed matric with a mere 172 000 getting a Bachelor Pass.’
In 2020, the failure to adequately prepare every school in South Africa for reopening after the national lockdown has created an environment yet again that has exacerbated the continued marginalisation, inequality and unfairness that is often seen in South African schools. The gripping reality that has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic has awakened anger in parents, activists and students across previously and continuously disadvantaged schools. This has been underpinned by the lack of basic services and public infrastructure, corruption, lack of personal and economic security together with what seems to be a total disregard for the human life of young black students.
The effects of school closure on learners
In March of this year, with only 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19, President Ramaphosa announced the closure of schools in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country. This call was met with mixed emotions from parents and teachers unions, however the Secretary of the National Association of School Governing Bodies at the time agreed that indeed these are difficult times and parents and schools had to adhere to government rules and regulations. However, the longer schools remained closed, it brought up questions of how students remain academically engaged while they remain outside the classroom. The closing of most public schools for a month meant that the academic year would be extended into 2021.
By July, South Africa had the highest number of coronavirus infections on the continent at 400,000 cases. The rapid growth in numbers meant that schools had to remain closed into August, a move affecting more than 14 million children and the adults who cared for them. This order to keep schools closed covered government schools and not private schools, even though many private schools remained closed. This decision to close some schools and not others, was yet again another reminder that, indeed there are two schools in South Africa, the public and the private, the resourced and the under-resourced, the protected as well as the unprotected.
By early August, South African students had lost between 30 and 59 days of school, depending on their grade. Teachers, especially those who did not have access to online learning platforms were unable to complete the school curriculum, leaving many gaps in students’ educational formation. International research showed that such learning losses could have lasting implications, even stretching into the labour market and affecting lifetime earnings.
The reality of the South African landscape is that, even before the national lockdown in March certain children were already struggling with various challenges. Research showed that 2.5 million children experienced hunger and almost a third who died were severely malnourished. Research by the Human Science Council showed an increase in hunger since the lockdown, as many workers lost their income and children no longer received free school meals. The COVID-19 pandemic enabled us to once again revisit our most core democratic ideals of freedom for all, access to food, education and safety. It further revealed that we are far from where we would like to be. As a nation we have been invited once again to reflect on why it is that our democracy is not working for all and that many, especially the young and most vulnerable, are still left out of a core part of their most formative years.
This month Statistics South Africa published a report showing that between April and June 2020, 2.5 million young people aged 15 to 34 were unemployed in South Africa. South Africa’s overall unemployment rate rose to 30.8% in the third quarter of 2020 from 23.3% in the previous period. South Africa has lost a decade’s worth of jobs in less than a half a year. Between 2009 and 2019, the country created 2.4 million jobs, while early indications are that the last six months as many 2.8 million jobs have been lost.
In the midst of a global pandemic, black students and black youth found themselves wrapped in a multiple yoke of burden in South Africa. The different ways in which matriculants have experienced the 2020 end of year exams will be indicative of the different education systems and educational resources they were exposed to, in order to get them to the finish line. The envisioned learner as the government prepared for the gradual re-opening of schools was a white learner in an affluent school with access to google classroom while the reality is that not everyone is the envisioned learner. Therefore the 2021 matriculants results that we will receive at the beginning of the year will remind us that there are two learners in South Africa who experienced two different education systems.
The last six months of 2020 have made radical changes to the economic future of South Africa. Now more than ever, our government, civil society and educators need to put front of mind every learner so that no learner is left behind, and less learners form part of the cohort of unemployed and unemployable youth. It is essential that collectively we consider robust and innovative mechanisms that would strengthen the capacity of teachers, school governing bodies, parents and communities across the country to initialise an inclusive and a distributive economy that leaves no learner behind.
Bonolo Makgale is a Programme Manager of the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit Centre For Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She is a social justice activist with an academic interest in Governance, Politics and Democratisation in Africa. She writes for DDP in her personal capacity and her views do not represent those of the organization.