Away with Afrikaans
Popular participation is needed to defeat reactionary and undemocratic decisions by school governing bodies that yearn for apartheid , write Castro Ngobese and Sibane Mngadi.
One of the most iconic images taken by photojournalist Sam Nzima during the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto captured one of the protesting students carrying a placard with a bold message: “Away with Afrikaans.”
This was a reaction to the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black township schools. The image was printed in various local newspapers and gained a global audience as it accentuated the essence of the students’ demands.
The repressive organs of the state, particularly the police, were unleashed to quell the dissent, and this was accompanied by ugly scenes of violence and the mass arrests of student leaders. The repression intensified the unity of the student-worker axis that provided a platform upon which a popular front was built in the 1980s, spearheading the final offensive against the apartheid regime. The ultimate outcome was the democratic breakthrough in 1994 and a Constitution that guarantees each child the right to quality education.
We were reminded of those scenes in Soweto in 1976 after the Pretoria High Court decided to deny a request by 55 pupils to be enrolled and taught in English at the Afrikaans medium Hoërskool Overvaal. The judgment was received with mixed emotions, and some have rightly argued that the ruling was an attack on our democratic gains in building a single, nonracial, nonsexist, democratic public education system that is accessible to all, irrespective of colour, language or creed.
The judgment, which the Gauteng department of education is appealing, has led to negative consequences for the school and for the community of Vereeniging.
Last week, on the first school day of the year, parents staged a protest to demand that the 55 pupils be admitted to the school. The protests led to violent scenes playing out around the school and have worsened racial tension in the area.
Many others have interpreted the judgment as a political tool that is being used by the school’s governing body to exclude black pupils, which leads to continued segregation.
The SA Schools Act is not always enforced.
A case in point: Two boys from the same household who live about 500m from Rondebosch Boys’ High School, a public school in Cape Town, apply for admission to Grade 8. One doesn’t receive a response at all; the other is called in for an interview.
After being thoroughly coached by his parents, he seems to handle all the questions from the teacher well – he explains his good marks in maths and engages in all other academic subjects. Everything seems to be going well.
The problem begins during a discussion about extra-mural activities. His parents had prepared him for the questions about academics, but they hadn’t anticipated queries about what sports the child was interested in.
“What sport do you play?” asks the teacher. “I play soccer. I am in the Under 15 team for Santos,” the boy responds with pride, volunteering information about how well his team is doing.
The teacher explains that, according to the school’s rules, all boys are required to play rugby for the school.
“Will you be willing to play rugby?” the teacher asks.
“No, I do not like rugby,” the boy replies.
And the interview is over. The boy’s application is declined. Despite enquiries, the school does not explain its decision. An appeal to the school’s governing body elicits this response: “Proximity to the school is not the only consideration and we do not have enough space.”
Several letters, emails and phone calls to Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schafer do not bring about a resolution. Schafer’s spokesperson, Jessica Shelver, states that the school’s governing body has the right to grant or decline admission to the facility.
The boys end up being admitted to Grade 8 in a private school, which costs significantly more than Rondebosch Boys’ High School would have.
Last year, the department of education published draft amendments to the SA Schools Act, which seek to curtail the power that governing bodies wield at former Model C schools – schools that were built with and continue to be funded by taxpayers’ money.
Yes, parents pay extra fees to cover the costs of running these schools, but does that give their governing bodies the right to exclude new pupils?
Governing bodies unilaterally formulate the requirements for admission and decide whether a new pupil meets these requirements. They are under no obligation to explain why admission is refused and there is no appeal process against this decision – unless the case is taken to court.
Such absolute power in the running of public institutions is unacceptable, especially if there is evidence of systematic exclusion.
The proposed amendments to the act upgrade the final authority to admit pupils to the head of department (HOD).
- The changes will require school governing bodies to submit admission policies to the HOD for approval. “In the event that the HOD does not approve the policy, or any amendment thereof, he or she must return it to the governing body with such recommendations as may be deemed necessary. The policy needs to be reviewed every three years or whenever the prescribed factors have changed, when circumstances so require, or at the request of the HOD,” the bill proposes.
- The bill further makes provisions for a pupil who has been refused admission to appeal to the MEC for education in their province.
- The bill will require the governing body to submit the language policy of a public school, and any amendment thereof, to the HOD for approval, and it empowers the HOD to direct the school to adopt more than one language where necessary.
- The bill will require that the code of conduct of a public school must take into account the diverse cultural beliefs and religious observances of the pupils at the school, and it makes provision for an exemption clause that will make it possible for pupils to decline to comply with certain sections of the code for religious or cultural reasons.
These proposals have been met with strong opposition from school governing bodies, AfriForum and other entities that would like to retain their current powers.
It is within this context that calls for the amendment of the SA Schools Act should be supported by all progressive parents and leading voices in society. This will require popular participation on the ground so that reactionary and undemocratic decisions by school governing bodies that are still envious of the apartheid schooling system are defeated.
For the purposes of reconciliation and nation-building, we are not opposed to Afrikaans as a language, but we are opposed to the systematic use of a “semi-imperial” language as an instrument of exclusion, especially when used against those who are historically disadvantaged and who happen to be the black majority.
It is necessary to form a group similar to the National Education Crisis Committee of the 1980s to engage with all stakeholders and find solutions to the continuing challenge of attaining transformation in our education system. It should seek to create equality so that all of South Africa’s children have the opportunity to access quality education.
Ngobese works as a public servant in Gauteng; Mngadi is a corporate affairs professional in the private sector
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