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Whither our children?

Let there be no doubt, the future of our children is seriously at stake. A growing social crisis in our schools and townships has engulfed the youth, particularly teenagers. While this crisis has manifested itself in diverse forms in our society it is its wide-ranging negative effects in schools across the country that demands the most serious attention by government and civil society.

It is indeed a crisis that cannot be left to educational authorities but must involve every parent and pupil and relevant organisations in a concerted effort to address it.

The increasing violence in schools and the proliferation and usage of drugs and alcohol has severely strained relations between children, parents and educational authorities and placed this crisis at the top of the national agenda. It is having a devastating impact upon the educational fabric of this society.

This is probably the most difficult period in human history to raise children amidst the numerous threats and challenges the globalised environment poses. This is a direct and indirect reflection of the socio-cultural impacts of globalisation on our society. And though poverty and unemployment must be contributing factors seriously affecting teenage behaviour, their well-being and performance at schools, violence and a breakdown in discipline cannot always be causally linked to it. There are deeper and systemic societal factors which we have to grapple with to both understand and combat it. It is a multifaceted global problem which other countries are also facing.

Spiralling incidents of violence involving pupils — including several deaths — come fast on the heels of numerous other problems that parents and schools are facing. Children are being bombarded with an astonishing array of technological devices which pose threats to their well-being, growth and development. The higher their class level the greater their exposure to such technology. Cellphones, Mixit, chat rooms and other communicative devices are becoming somewhat intimidating and overwhelming for many, if not most, parents.

Though technology has always had positive and negative dimensions our experiences recently indicate that more negative consequences are becoming predominant. We often don’t know and have little time to devote to enquiring what our children are doing with their access to the internet and chat rooms. The evidence suggests that much that is problematic and potentially harmful to our children is taking place in these areas, often unknown to parents, most of whom in this country in any case are daily consumed by problems of poverty and unempoyment.

The cellphone — though a powerful technology which has revolutionised communications to the benefit of all classes of people and children — is becoming an object which is creating difficult problems for teenagers and relations with their parents.

Cellphone technology is giving them a sense of excitement, venture, power and independence which has both positive and negative consequences that needs to be critically examined. The many negative consequences we daily have in one way or another with cellphones requires the urgent attention of schools, the government, parents, cellphone companies and broader civil society.

Basic communication between parents and their children has been badly affected by cellphones, which the latter, especially those with Mixit — spend many hours on. School work -whether in the form of homework or preparation for tests or exams – has also been negatively affected by cellphones, which have music, games, sms, the internet and so much more to distract their attention from their work. Countless schools report on how cellphones have disturbed lessons, with many now impounding the phones and imposing fines.

And the more this technology advances and expands, the greater will be the potential problems we will face because it will exponentially increase the dangers and distractions. It is no exaggeration to state that we are at great risk of fetishising this technology in a way that alienates and controls us and negatively impacts on our lives, and thereby outweighing the many beneficial aspects.

A new sense of defiance of parental authority and rejection of guidance is rampant across the country. In an interview with the BBC, Barney Pityana said that we have a national social crisis among the youth and that their future was being threatened because there is a breakdown of responsibility and discipline within schools and communities and between parents and their children.

But to target African pupils as the perpetrators of violence and their parents for not disciplining them, as Gauteng’s minister for education, Angie Motshekga has done, is totally misplaced and in fact provocative. She should know better. There have been numerous incidents of violence at schools involving other “races” or ethnic groups. Besides, because they constitute the overwhelming majority of the student population inevitably and logically there will be proportionately more incidents of violence involving African students than others.

Besides, as a leading member of the ANC in Gauteng, she should know that the vast majority of African pupils come from townships in which generalised poverty and frustration with conditions has itself produced crime and violence since the apartheid days. These children are products of a very unhealthy living environment and until those conditions are changed the likelihood is that violence will continue.

Note must be taken too of the fact that trends towards resorting to violence to solve problems won’t end just because some of these pupils attend former Model C or private schools in formerly white suburbia. This is not, however, to suggest that nothing can be done to address the current violence before we see big social changes. It does suggest that there are systemic causes which require a more holistic approach.

The question is how do we collectively address these huge socio-educational problems? Perhaps President Thabo Mbeki and the government need to organise a national conference of relevant stakeholders to begin a serious conversation and debate about violence in our schools and a concerted strategy to combat it. So deep is this crisis that time is of the essence. We need to act very soon.

If we accept the maxim that the youth are our future then very worrying currents trends demand urgent attention at the highest level.