Covid-19. Such a microscopic organism, but it’s wreaking havoc across the whole globe. And while here in South Africa people are protesting everything from the cigarette and alcohol ban to tourism closures, the pandemic has brought a far more serious issue to light: economic and societal equity gaps.
In South Africa, we are not all equal
It’s been almost 30 years since Apartheid ended in South Africa, yet we still have devastating societal equity gaps. It begins with education, filters through to universities and colleges, then through to the workplace – where better-educated employees have more opportunities, so that they can provide more for their families’ and children’s future. And so the cycle continues.
We’ve always known that inequality is an issue in South Africa, but Covid-19 has shown just how incredibly serious the problem is.
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, & the gap between continues to widen
During lockdown, privileged South Africans are working from home and dipping into their savings, while many disadvantaged citizens have lost their jobs and sole source of income. Privileged citizens have the peace of mind of private medical aid, while many (but not all) underprivileged have no choice but to risk being treated at an under-equipped state hospital if they test positive for Covid-19.
Privileged South Africans home school their children using study aids and uncapped WiFi. Underprivileged South Africans have access to neither. As schools reopen, ‘rich’ schools can easily be equipped to deal with new health and safety measures. On the other hand, ‘poor’ schools are barely able to meet basic safety standards, let alone the requirements of Covid-19.
If the cycle of inequality in South Africa begins with education, then that’s the place to address it.
ALL schools have a right to improved infrastructure and sanitation
As part of South Africa’s lockdown, all schools were closed, opened, and closed again. Education Minister Matsie Angelina Motshekga has announced a new phased reopening so that learners can once again return to school.
What we are seeing is exactly what we expected to see. Many poor schools in rural areas do not have basic facilities such as running water, let alone the resources for appropriate health and safety measures such as Covid-19 sanitisation and social distancing.
The effect of the pandemic in South Africa is that it has become glaringly obvious that the inequalities of Apartheid have never been fully addressed when it comes to educating the youth and giving all South Africans equal opportunities.
Unions are demanding that inequalities in South African schools infrastructure
Both the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa expressed concerns and released statements regarding the return to school after lockdown, and the need to overhaul facilities to provide a safe environment for learners.
These include the need for proper toilet facilities (as opposed to the pit latrines that many rural schools use), reduced class sizes to facilitate social distancing, provision of soap, sanitisers, masks, and PPE, and adequate screening of all learners and teaching staff.
There is no doubt that we need transparency about the state of preparedness of schools. However, we must also not lose sight of the fact that the failure of many provincial departments to comply with this readiness, mirrors their ongoing failure to provide textbooks and essential infrastructures.
By addressing inequality in education, we can begin to address inequality in other sectors
Apartheid is a thing of the past, but its legacy continues. Covid-19 has shown us just how much something as simple as running water can affect a child’s opportunity to receive a good education.
South Africa’s Department of Basic Education is now prioritising sanitation in rural and disadvantaged schools so that all students have access to a safe and healthy environment in which to learn.