Do you see them?

The beginning of a new school year – for most teachers and learners – is accompanied with excitement, hope, the intention to do better than the last and of course a bit of fear of the unknown. This phenomenon is true throughout all types of schools across the country. Rich or poor, public or private, big or small, fee-paying or non-fee paying. These schools are filled with hundreds of eager learners who dream of better things for themselves and their families. The irony, however, is that for only a fraction of these learners, dreams will become a glorious reality. The large bulk of learners who start the year excited and filled with hope quickly realise that the year will be just the same as previous years.

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This realisation is different for each learner. Some realise that their teacher will not be in class for half of the year, despite earning a salary. Others realise that they will still have to make use of the pit latrines across the field to relieve themselves. Others, still, realise that they will have to share two books and five pencils with fifty-six others in their classroom under the big, barren tree outside. Some realise that their hunger pangs are not quenched by hope and excitement and others realise that violence is going to be the only after school activity for the year. These tragic circumstances are by no means the fault of any of these learners. This is the unjust system of historical inequality at play.

These inequalities have been written about and studied for years by multiple organisations. The World Bank, for example, has written a 2018 report, titled ‘Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities’[1], which highlights important aspects of South Africa’s unique socio-political-economic climate, but fails to recognize its own role in the advancement of inequality by encouraging a neoliberal agenda. More holistic and realistic reports on South Africa’s gross inequality would be Pam Christie’s 2010 book ‘Landscapes of Leadership in South African Schools: Mapping the Changes’[2] as well as the work done by Ahmed and Sayed ‘Promoting access and enhancing education opportunities? The case of ‘no-fees schools in South Africa’[3]. These works testify to the fact that there are serious inequalities in South Africa’s education system and go further by pinpointing causes for our current problems.

P3Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that the moral test for any society lies in the condition of its children[4]. When I consider the above injustices in light of Bonhoeffer’s quote, I realize that South Africa suffers from a bi-polar moral disorder. A fraction of our children are protected, provided for and encouraged to succeed while the majority are left defenceless and without any hope for the future. If only a fraction of our children finds themselves in conducive conditions, then our morality as a nation is seriously lacking. It is not enough for 1/10 learners to succeed, while the other 9 are forgotten.

My personal challenge at the moment has been to navigate the experience of our nation’s bi-polar moral disorder and its varying spectrum. I have worked at less-advantaged private schools and now at an elite public school and the challenge remains the same. What do I do with my skills, knowledge and power to change the reality of our nation’s morality? The answer, as I see it now, is to take up space amongst people that tend to easily forget about those unwanted and undesirable learners. It is to disrupt what is considered a ‘sanctified space’ for a wealthy, predominantly white and exclusive group of people by reminding them of our injustices – past and present. This reminder is to make known the realities of learners across the country so that they are never forgotten or disempowered. It is to ensure that those who seek hope – find it and finally, it is to break down barriers so that all our learners, in this great country, can be empowered and find success no matter where or who they are.

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The isiZulu greeting ‘Sawubona’ means ‘I see you’. This is a profound statement that goes far beyond the greeting. It literally means to acknowledge, to understand, to empathise, to recognize and to appreciate. My challenge to everyone reading this is to remember to see others, especially those that do not have the same privilege as you. I intend to make this a mainstay for my 2020, to see (acknowledge, understand, empathise, recognize and appreciate) learners from all walks of life, I hope you will join me in this challenge!


[1] World Bank (2018) – Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities, Washington DC.

[2] Christie, P. (2010). Landscapes of Leadership in South African Schools: Mapping the Changes. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 38(6), pp. 694-711.

[3] Ahmed, R. & Sayed, Y. (2009). Promoting access and enhancing education opportunities? The case of ‘ne-fees schools in South Africa. A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 39(2), pp. 203-218.

[4] Henry Giroux (2015) – Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education, Page 10.

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