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Saving our children by sobering them up

By Liezille Pretorius

Dear Comrade Angie Motshekga,

The problem I wish to address with you is the issue of alcohol misuse in schools. It is my opinion that the current contention around the alcohol-free schools campaign is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the child’s unique socio-economic/politic circumstances. In this letter I show that if the education system weaves a wave of resilience to alcohol misuse by developing protective factors in children, it could minimise episodes of reported alcohol misuse in the school system.

As a mother of three children (two already in our education system) my concerns are profoundly personal. Equally, as a social scientist, I find my mind drifting off to the private school where my children attend classes with other children from grades R to 12 each working day. I think about the influences their peers have over them. It’s a sobering thought that someone at their school might expose them to alcohol misuse and that they too might become a statistic. Their school is situated in a busy Bellville city centre and has a security guard managing a gated fence. Even though this gated school environment is common, not all children go to school in such seemingly a safe environment. My children are fortunate to go to a very good school; however, my purpose is to bring to your attention the plight of the misfortunate children living in impoverished areas, as if they were my own.

I grew up in Rocklands, Mitchell’s Plain. Here, on every street corner, you will find a shebeen. So, it’s safe to say that as a child I was overexposed to alcohol misuse. The same is true for many other children growing up in any South African township. In this vein, problem drinking has been constructed against the backdrop of the apartheid regime’s policies and laws. This means that the parents of today’s learners grew up in the wake of apartheid, which was responsible for constructing a culture of drinking constituted by the “dop” or “tot” system. In the Western Cape, for instance, wine farmers paid their workers with alcohol in lieu of money.

What stands out in the many studies and news broadcasts on school alcohol misuse in impoverished areas is that it is usually embedded in their socioeconomic and political context. Such as an incident that occurred at Jabulani High School in August 2011. Sowetan Live reported that Thobile Manana, an official from the Gauteng department of education had noticed that a learner was “hopelessly drunk” as she was entering the school during an early morning school visit. Jabulani High School’s attendance is low and the learner drop out rate is high. How do they get the alcohol in the school? Why are stringent measures against alcohol misuse at school not working? Further, a survey by the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research and Wits University carried out between 1997 and 2003 in Soweto revealed that 25 in every 1 000 seven-year-olds tested had a severe form of fetal alcohol syndrome. By comparison, surveys in the United States indicate a prevalence rate of only one or two in every 1 000 births. How is the school system dealing with children affected by FAS?

The point I’m trying to make is that we cannot, therefore, educate children in our schools without taking their family and community contexts into account. In essence, a family system wherein alcohol is misused, constructs the silence, secrecy and shame of the dysfunctional family. Some of these dysfunctions are that learners live under the breadline because instead of buying food, money goes to alcohol. How do you educate a hungry child?

The problem is, Minister, your strategies to ensure alcohol-free schools are not working. The many attempts made by your department to exterminate alcohol misuse in schools have been noted: Soul City’s Phuza Wize Drink Safe Live Safe alcohol-free schools campaign; the alcohol-free schools policy led by the 5300 Soul buddyz clubs stemming from the Soul Buddyz 5 television drama. Soul Buddyz 5 is aimed at 8 to 14-year-olds, shows the impact of alcohol on children and follows the story of a group of children who try to rid their school and community of alcohol. In a media statement at the launch of the Soul Buddyz 5 television drama Deputy Minister of Social Development, Bongi Maria Ntuli said: “Alcohol-free schools means no alcohol for learners and no alcohol to be consumed by either teachers or parents on the school premises. It also means no advertising or sponsorships by alcohol producers or sellers at schools. It means all events and tours are to be alcohol free. No shebeen, tavern or bottle store should operate within 500 metres of the school. In addition schools need to be committed to educating learners about the consequences of alcohol and other substances in the school.”

In my opinion, if we direct our energies to develop a mindset of a resilient child, all the alcohol-free schools campaigns you initiate will have a much greater impact. Resilient children are optimistic and hold high self worth. They have acquired the capability to work out problems and make decisions and consequently are more probable to view mistakes, adversity and obstacles as challenges to face up to rather than stressors to circumvent. Resilient children are aware of their drawbacks and vulnerabilities but they also aware of their strong point and talents. They have developed effective interpersonal skills with peers and adults and are able to seek out assistance and nurturance in appropriate ways. They focus on the aspects of their lives over which they have control rather than those over which they have little or no influence.

There’s no one established golden passageway to the future. Every child journeys through life on a distinctive path that is shaped by an array of issues, including his or her inborn temperament, educational experiences, family type, and morals as well as the broader society or culture. Yet, there are some guideposts that make available principles and procedures pertinent to any road a child travels. This is what we should be teaching our children in school.

So, that being said, how do we sober up Mzansi? Are we South African enough to care about each other’s children? We, South Africans – founders of ubuntu living – cannot afford not to care about our children. We must foster resiliency in our children. Minister, we must heal the world they live in; save it for our children.

Dr Liezille Pretorius is a post doctoral researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council.

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