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How violence, protests shut the door on learning

I’ve been following the violent protests in township communities with half an ear. It’s been interesting watching what the media chooses to focus on when reporting these stories and shaping the discourse about whose stories matter. When I’ve seen the images of those out in the streets protesting I’ve been uncomfortable at how young the faces of the protesters are. The teacher in me always wonders “why are they not in school?” and more importantly “why isn’t the community protecting their right to an education by making sure they are at school in spite of the protests?” My musings are in vain. I have no conception of what it means to be in a community struggling to survive and hoping on government to deliver basic services and doing this in a context where the education of their children is being jeopardised.

As South Africans we often suffer from a chronic case of amnesia as though the violent protests we are seeing now are something new. They might be a new wave but the ripple of the wave was with us a few years ago. In 2007 schools in Khutsong went on a go-slow amid the violence in the community protesting about the North West/Gauteng transfer. Another story that same year reported how police had simply watched while an attack ensued outside Mbulelo Primary School in Khutsong. There was never a follow-up about how the school dealt with this issue. What happened to the students who had been attacked? What happened to the young people (described as teenagers from the community in the article) who were guilty of the violence and the police who stood and watched?

The violence and protests in poor communities affects the schools. This is not new. Every time there is taxi war in Khayelitsha or Gugulethu, my students (who have to travel to the southern suburbs in Cape Town) are the ones affected. The “water-wars” mean we can assume that if the community members do not have sufficient access to water then neither do the few institutions in these communities. Schools shut down when there is no water in a school because toilets do not operate as they should. While volunteering in schools around Rhini (Grahamstown township area) a few years ago, it was the norm for schools to shut down because there was no water in the school. Some would even close for more than one day. The students seemed resigned to this reality. It was a culture they seemed to live with rather than question (private schools in the same town never had this problem as they seemed to have enough water to have sprinklers for their rugby fields as well).

If we did focus on the stories beyond the hyped-up version of the stories, what would we find about the state of education in these communities? Would we find that it’s business as usual and young people have found a way to live in spite of the violence around them? Or would we find that once learning has been disrupted, there are fewer students who find the need to return to school and thus the high drop-out rate that we refuse to acknowledge when matric results are revealed every year? By not focusing on the education of the poor in the midst of the violence, the idea that the education of the black, poor child does not matter is entrenched. And that poor, black parents do not care about the education of their children because they are out in the street fighting for water. This is racist and classist but it seems to be the narrative we could easily fall into when we try to analyse what really happens to the education of people in violent communities.

The curious case of township education has become so embroiled in the violence in these communities. But where is the outcry? Could it be that when people’s basic necessities are in a vulnerable position, education and self-actualisation slips to the bottom of the list of priorities? We take it for granted that students will be resilient and they will attempt to go to school. The media’s focus on the police has overshadowed how the daily lives of the people in these communities have been disrupted. What if we also had a story about the child whose father was shot while at a protest?

Thanks to the government’s warped sense of education priorities we may never find out about the extent of this violence in places like Brits, Sebokeng, Durban Deep, Khutsong and many others in Limpopo. The only time education seems to matter is in January when matric results are released and schools begin to open a week later. This is a travesty.


  • Athambile Masola

    A teacher in Johannesburg.Interested in education,feminism and sometimes a bit of politics (with a small letter p).