CHARLES MOLELE and NYAKALLO TEFU
THERE are growing calls for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to step down over her mishandling of reopening of schools amid COVID-19 pandemic and getting away with it. Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners were supposed to have returned to school on Monday June 1 but the department postponed the date, sparking outrage among parents, teacher unions and school governing bodies.
Irate South Africans took to social media on Sunday and called for the minister to step down because she lacked professionalism, while others criticized her decision for reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite serious health and safety concerns raised by teacher unions and vocal NGOs, Motshekga has stubbornly insisted that the phased reopening of schools should go ahead, ignoring scientific data and evidence on the increasing number of confirmed coronavirus cases, including projections of a peak in active cases between early July (pessimistic) and early Aug (optimistic).
Government figures showed that as of Monday this week, the cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa stood at 34 357 while the number of deaths 705.
In the Western Cape, there were 22 new deaths, bringing the total to 525 in the province.
One South Africa Movement (OSAM) founder and leader Mmusi Maimane told Inside Education on Monday that Motshekga should resign or be removed from office.
“We’ve had lockdown for three months yet the Education Minister only started consultations on Saturday about the reopening of schools. If she can’t even show up at her own media briefing to the address the nation about her plans, that’s unacceptable. We live in a consequence-free society,” said Maimane.
“We are calling for reopening of schools at the same, equitably. We can’t have some good schools opening while leaving those from poor communities closed. All schools must open at the same time.”
Malema said many schools were not yet ready to reopen and sending children back to the classroom would expose them to the virus.
“Do not send your children to schools. The schools don’t have toilets, drink from one tap, travel in crowded transport. We are led by fools who don’t think,” said Malema.
In an interview with Inside Education on Monday, EFF’s spokesperson Vuyani Pambo lambasted Motshekga’s decision to reopen schools in the middle of the worst health crisis in South Africa, and a potentially daunting challenge to the world since the 1918 Spanish flu and the 1932 Great Depression. The Spanish Flu decimated more than 300 thousand South Africans over a two-year period.
“I think the many South Africans who are calling for Angie Motshekga to step down are well within their rights. They are asking her to do so because you can’t have a government Minister who is unable to see that the decision to reopen schools is an ill-informed decision. The schools in South Africa have not been ready, not in just the past three weeks but for decades,” Pambo said.
“Schools have been running without proper flushing toilets, children have been falling into pit toilets, we have cases of children who have lost their lives. It is important that the government rethinks this decision. In fact, it must not even try to reopen schools on June 8 because what the department is doing is preparing our children for a mass slaughter. Why does Angie feel the need to open schools in such a rush. Who is holding a gun to her head? No one is holding a gun to her head!”
The DA’s Shadow Minister of Basic Education Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi said Motshekga must step down because she was ‘incompetent” and had failed to prepare schools on time for the reopening of schools.
“I am not surprised that people want her to step down because South Africans believe that she has dropped the ball. You can’t drop people at the 11th hour when you have announced that they will return to school, some parents traveled long distances to get their children to school. The Minister misled the country and she failed to prepare on time,” said Tarabella-Marchesi.
Teacher unions, parents and civil society groups also called Motshekga to step down for mishandling the reopening of schools under COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
In a joint statement, teacher unions said Motshekga asked for time to consult her colleagues in the Cabinet on the issue of June 1 reopening given the information from the independent Consortium and the Unions and committed to respond on the 31 st May 2020, which she did not honour.
“This is a betrayal of trust and does not bode well for the credibility of the education system. We want to put on record that the date of the 8th June was never mentioned in the meeting because the focus was readying the system and ensuring that all the provinces comply with the twelve non-negotiables,” the unions said in a statement.
“The astounding confusion caused by the statement must be condemned because the Department of Basic Education is obsessed with dates and ignoring the evidence of provincial readiness. The lack of appreciation for evidence can only be characterized as irresponsible and negligent.”
The teacher unions called on teachers and learners not to go back to school until the non-negotiables were delivered at all schools across the country.
“We therefore advise all schools, even those that might be ready to re-open, having received all the necessary materials for teachers and learners, not to re-open for learners until the non-negotiables have been delivered to all schools and to inform their learners accordingly. To further contribute to disparities between schools would be irresponsible,” the unions said.
“We call on the Minister to meet the Teacher Unions and Governing Body Associations on Thursday, 11th for genuine assessment and engagement about the readiness of the system. Parents, learners, teachers and education workers can be assured that we all wish schooling to resume as soon as possible, but not at the expense of their health and safety.”
In a joint statement, SECTION27, Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education said the NGOS were immensely distressed that Department of Basic Education has failed to fulfill its promises to enable schools to re-open safely.
“With last minute announcements about schools reopening for learners on 8 June 2020 instead of 1 June 2020 coming from the DBE late last night (31 May 2020), there is renewed uncertainty about the way forward for schooling. What’s more, some provinces – notably the Western Cape – seem to be giving directives that contradict this announcement, and maintain that schools will open on Monday,” the NGOs said in a statement.
“If plans were implemented as they were intended to be, all schools should have been properly sanitized, and PPE and the promised infrastructure ought to have been delivered in time for the re-opening date determined by Motshekga. The failure of the DBE and most provincial education departments to comply with their undertakings and meet their own deadlines in terms of preparing schools for re-opening, unfortunately mirrors their ongoing failures to provide textbooks, essential school infrastructure like toilets, and scholar transport.”
They added: “We urge the DBE to engage in meaningful consultation with learners, school staff and caregivers, and to move expeditiously in ensuring that all deliveries occur at all schools. It is critical that the uncertainty surrounding the re-opening of schools is resolved in the interest of the right to basic education for all learners in South Africa.”
Earlier on Monday during a media briefing out of Rustenburg, North West, Motshekga ‘wholeheartedly’ and profusely apologized for delaying her address to the public as well as her late postponement of the return to schools of learners from 1 June until 8 June.
“At the outset, I must acknowledge the furore the postponement of yesterday’s media conference caused, and for that I sincerely apologize. Due to last minute changes to plans to start the teaching and learning for Grade 7s and 12s in public school, I was forced into a number of consultations with a number of key stakeholders with a direct interest in basic education, resulting in challenges to continue with the press briefing we had planned,” said Motshekga.
“I had to urgently engage with, for instance, the association of school principals, the leadership of special schools, private and independent schools to manage the difficulties that these changes presented. I also had to communicate with the South African Human Rights Commission, which had also raised concerns about the resumption of classes today. I wish to apologize wholeheartedly for the inconvenience caused.”
Motshekga said that following the presentation of three reports which showed that schools were not ready to reopen, she spent Sunday consulting with key stakeholders.
Among others, water and sanitation was also one of the outstanding issues, with 2634 schools with no water and still awaiting to be supplied with water tanks by Rand Water.
Teboho Joala, General Manager of Communication and Stakeholder Management at the Rand Water, which is assisting the department in providing water to schools that do not have it, admitted that his company has not yet supplied water to the majority of schools across the country.
“In total, we have 3126 schools affected by the water problems in the country and there are two types – ones with water tanks that are too far from the water supply and schools with no water tanks”, said Rand Water.
“Water tanks are being transported across the country to reach schools that need them.”
(Compiled by Inside Education staff)