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Teachers, support workers, and communities should decide how and when schools open
Statement by WASP
In response to the ministerial announcement by Angie Motshekga that schools will reopen from 1 June, a majority of existing teacher unions SADTU, NAPTOSA, PEU, NATU, and SAOU, have released a joint statement instructing their members to not enter schools that are unsafe. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), all school staff are expected to report to duty on 25 May.
Capitalism at the root of crisis in education
South Africa’s education system is in crisis at all levels – from early childhood development to higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how our public sector institutions have been gutted through under investment, privatisation, and neglect. However, the root of this crisis is the capitalist system. The ANC’s wholehearted embrace of capitalism and the adoption of a neoliberal agenda in all spheres, including education, has eroded any hope that they will provide quality education for the vast majority.
We have a two-tier public school system, made up of fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. In addition to this there are “independent” (private) schools, some of which also receive state funding. The state funding for schools is based on a quintile system that has been proven through multiple years of research to be completely inadequate in assessing the needs of schools. It has served to further entrench poverty in schools that serve poor and working class communities, and protect the wealth of schools in the top tier.
In 21.4% of public schools, there are more than 36 learners to an educator according to the 2019 EMIS School Realities report. Overcrowding of classrooms has severe impacts on both teachers, who cannot give individual attention to learners and struggle with classroom management and workloads, as well as the learners, who can fall through the cracks as learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues go unnoticed. Currently more than half of learners starting in Gr R do not make it to Gr 12.
Ultimately this same government has shown its complete disregard for the lives of the people it supposedly serves: it took the drowning of a learner in a pit latrine, and another learner killed by the collapsing walls of one, for the government to commit to eradicating the remaining 3800+ pit latrines still in our schools. Enacting austerity budgets over decades has resulted in schools that have no running water, a lack of heating and electricity, insufficient classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, burgeoning unemployment amongst qualified teachers, and lack of resources for teaching and learning generally.
Not safe for staff and learners
In these existing conditions, combined with increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the push to reopen schools is all the more reckless. It exposes just how divorced the decision-makers in the DBE and the Provincial Departments of Education (PDEs) are from the reality schools face daily. Teachers, support workers, parents, guardians and learners however know better, and they are rightfully frightened at the prospect of reopening schools.
Without an immediate increase in budget and staffing, the empty reassurance that class sizes will be smaller in the DBE’s approach to reopen schools has no real meaning to workers in education, who are acutely aware of the shortcomings in our schools. However, an even bigger question is where will the PPE and sanitary measures come from, when our very hospitals are struggling to secure the same?
Schools as a capitalist tool
Those supporting and even pushing for the reopening of schools reveal clearly that schools under a capitalist system are not primarily for learning to take place. Many say schools must reopen because parents must go to work, children rely on schools for feeding schemes, and that the budget cannot afford a suspended academic year. Schools, just like workplaces, are arenas of class struggle – they are a valuable tool for the capitalist class. In this respect they primarily provide childcare services so that bosses can demand longer hours from the workers they exploit for profits. Additionally, schools provide the skills for an efficient and educated workforce, where the vast majority is trained to serve the ever-increasing wealth of the rich, instead of nurturing individual talents and skills.
For the working class, schools provide essential social interaction between peers and teachers to equip them with an understanding of the world and natural environment, and vital skills to meet human needs on a sustainable basis. Contrary to the class prejudices against teachers and learners in poor schools spewed by Helen Zille and her racist crowd, education is vital to the working class. Our predecessors fought and won it as a right through brutal class struggle on the foundations of ending child labour. The academic freedom for critical thinking and inquiry about capitalism, how to organise against it, and other progressive elements of the education system exist because of concessions made by the bosses and the ruling class. In South Africa these were wrestled as part of the struggle against bantu education and the apartheid regime.
To ensure that schools become primarily centres for teaching and learning, instead of shouldering the social burdens created by the capitalist system, we have to make bold demands that take us forward and address the root causes of poverty and inequality. Although fears about lack of feeding schemes for some of the most vulnerable in our society are understandable, this pandemic has shown us that we must demand and struggle for a humane post-COVID-19 world. We cannot settle for “working with what we have”.
Build for a National Stay Away
WASP supports the call for a stay away by the teachers’ unions. We call on all unions and union federations to support and adopt this important call. WASP will also be campaigning for communities and parents/guardians to keep learners away from schools. Where possible we will organise pickets outside schools and utilize other creative methods to protest this decision and show solidarity. We are calling on SAFTU and the Working Class Summit to make a call and organise for a National Stay Away on the 1st of June 2020. There is a groundswell of support for this action amongst workers and communities. If successful, this can serve as a basis for a General Strike to unite the struggle against reopening of schools with struggles in other industries for PPEs, against job losses and in communities battling COVID-19.
Months of patient engagement and advice from unions, education and health experts, parents, guardians and learners, has not convinced this government to address the current crisis scientifically. Instead, it is determined to risk the lives of school-based workers, learners, and their communities – effectively the whole of South Africa.
The DBE and the PDEs have forced workers in the education sector to take direct action in the form of a stay away. This action must be supported by the communities that they serve. Such working class solidarity and united action has the potential to not only halt the reopening of schools in order to save lives, but change our dysfunctional education system completely.
Struggle for a better education system
We can win real gains by demanding the following as well:
- The immediate construction of new schools and classrooms to accommodate class sizes not exceeding 20 learners to pandemic-proof schools, as well as updating and installing quality sanitation at all schools. Mass investment in a true public works programme with workers employed on full public sector salaries and benefits. No tenderpreneurs!
- Mass employment of currently unemployed qualified teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes.
- Utilize the time schools are closed to further train and develop all education staff, and overhaul the inflexible curriculum. Unemployed teachers and trained graduates must be employed on full public sector salaries and benefits to immediately work on translation and development of teaching and learning materials that facilitate home language instruction at all levels of basic education.
- Employment of sufficient support staff: cleaners, maintenance workers, lab assistants, tech assistants, admin etc. on a permanent basis with full salaries and benefits.
- Permanent provision of dedicated school transport that can accommodate social distancing and be sanitized regularly.
- Employment of at least one nurse, one social worker and one counsellor for every school, depending on the size of the school. Physical and psychological wellbeing are essential for learning and teaching to take place.
- Full time, insourced security stationed at schools at all times to prevent the immense vandalisation taking place.
- Free workplace or community-based childcare for all who are working.
- No person should go hungry when schools are closed – sufficient food and basic necessities to be distributed to all communities and households in need immediately and after the pandemic.
- Nationalise all private schools, abolish the fee and no-fee system in public schools. All school funding to be centralized and distributed according to need. All school facilities (fields, sports halls, auditoriums, etc) to be shared between all schools as needed. This system must be overseen by a committee democratically elected from school workers, parents and guardians, and student representatives. Full-time administrators must be paid the average salary of a skilled worker, and must be open to recall at any time.
In order to win these demands and more, we must fight for the nationalisation of the mines, large-scale agriculture, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and other big businesses. These must be put under democratic control and management by workers and communities. When production is planned according to the needs of the many, not the profits of the few elites, we can ensure schools and the communities they serve have all the resources they need. Bold demands such as these lay a foundation for building a more equal and quality education system in South Africa. They also address broader socio-economic issues, such as unemployment and precarious employment, and can serve as a transitional bridge towards a socialist society free from exploitation.
International and working class solidarity
In the past three years we have witnessed workers in education rise up against austerity measures across the world. The crisis of capitalism in our schools is the same all over the world: overworked teachers, under resourced and overcrowded schools. #RedForEd in Arizona, USA started with a 75 000 strong teacher strike, which prompted and inspired more industrial action across the US.
Across the world last year, there have been similar nation-wide teachers’ strikes, in places like New Zealand and Zimbabwe. In the UK, schools are set to reopen on June 1st as well, with unions calling on education workers not to report to duty. We fully support our comrades across the world resisting the push from capitalist governments who shamelessly throw the working class under the bus. We further call for cross-border solidarity between all workers resisting the bosses’ greed during this pandemic. The working class, and our struggle for socialism, is international.
It should be up to workers at schools, both teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as the parents and guardians of learners to decide whether the schools in South Africa can safely be reopened. All schools must have an SRC elected by learners, which must also have input in all aspects of reopening of schools. Workers in all industries have to be the decision-makers on the so-called “reopening” of the economy. We cannot put that decision into the hands of a government that is heavily influenced by the interests of big business and their profits, instead of the lives and wellbeing of the majority.