by Cherie-Lynn van der Merwe
It is just before 06h00, and an urgent sound rouses me. It is not my alarm clock, but the school transport collecting my young neighbour who attends a public school a distance from here. He will return around 15h00. It’s a long day for a primary school child, but at least he is enrolled in a school.
In my mind’s eye, I picture our neighbourhood. A public school is within walking distance, but it is inadequate for the surrounding area. Several private Christian schools within a 10-minute drive produce excellent annual results, but their fees are far beyond many local parents’ budgets. There are also many good, substantial church buildings ranging from big halls to main churches with smaller rooms for junior activities. They are busy on Sundays but stand silently on other days. There is also a public recreation centre with open fields around it, which is used on weekends for various events and as a voting station every five years.
During his 2023 SONA address, President Ramaphosa stated that ”access to quality education for all is the most powerful instrument we have to end poverty.” Whilst I agree, when I think about the state of our education facilities, I can’t help but feel it’s just a lovely sentiment. Most family budgets curtail children’s education to generally oversubscribed public schools, with classes of 40+ children. In these large classes, overstretched teachers cannot engage students effectively, and the opportunities for developing skills such as open debating and discussions are minimal. Quick, young minds become bored, and those who struggle are soon left behind.
According to an article published by Equal Education in July 2016, only 8% of public schools in South Africa have functional libraries; textbooks are in short supply, leading to a generation with lowered reading ability and opportunity. Any of these activities, or lack thereof, occur in structures with insufficient lighting and sanitary facilities – a breeding ground for health problems. We still have rural schools around dilapidated mud buildings with various classes gathering under trees. Is it any wonder teachers would choose the comforts of affluent private schools or leave the education sector altogether?
Undoubtedly, part of education’s challenges lay in a lack of funding. But is that all it is? I would suggest that part of the solution lies in public/private partnerships exploring creative support for the education of our children. We are not all qualified or called to teach, but as Christ’s disciples, we are called to respond to the care and development of the poor and vulnerable.
Can we rethink the use of existing facilities? For example, could recreation facilities be used for physical education and cultural development, whilst old dysfunctional playgrounds at schools can be used for extra classrooms and healthier ablution facilities? Could the private sector, including faith-based organisations, consider offering spaces for libraries and study centres? These are just two possible radical suggestions, but if we do not think out of the box, solutions will evaporate, and future generations will fail.
We cannot afford to remain inactive and silent as most of our country’s population is slowly being disempowered by a lack of quality education. Nor can we accept that only a privileged few are equipped for informed development. We must think creatively about using what we have to enable our young people to find hope, skills and gifting. We need to step up now.