Setting Educational Precedent in a Time of Crisis Furthers Inequalities (Part I)

Should online Schooling as the ‘new normal’ leave older teachers behind?

The concepts of ‘e-learning’ and ‘online schooling’ are filled with a near magical aura of curiosity and novelty. When I hear these terms, I tend to think of words and phrases such as modernity, technologically advanced and futuristic. The truth is, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to teach online. I never ever thought, being a Primary School teacher, that I’d have an opportunity to do so. Enter COVID-19.

As educators begin the controversial migration back to our ‘natural habitat’, AKA the physical classroom, I am finally offered a moment to breathe, take stock and evaluate how the past seven weeks have gone. Since the initial announcement by Minister Motshekga that all schools were to be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of wealthier and well-resourced schools began offering various forms of online schooling to its learners. My own experience of these past few weeks was filled with a sense of excitement and fascination in the beginning but was quickly turned to a sense of worry at the number of challenges that educators across the country began to face as a result of these sudden changes.

Laying all the emotions aside, I think it wise to stop and recognize the past few weeks, and this current moment in history, for what it is. A sombre, life-altering moment that has the potential to change every aspect of how we look at education and our educators – for the better or for worse.

What do I mean exactly? Well, in common law legal systems, a term that is widely used is ‘setting precedent’ (Lamond, 2016). This roughly means that a certain case or situation in the legal courts establishes a principal or rule that must be adhered to by lower courts. Stare decisis is the Latin term and offers a slight nuance to the above attempted definition. Stare decisis invokes the idea that decisions are made based on previous decisions (Timothy, 2017). There is no room for deviance if one invokes Stare decisis. Now, I do realise that I cannot equate the legal system to the education system as they are two distinct structures, but the danger I see today is that by making use of technology and online schooling in such a rapid and sweeping manner (due to COVID-19) draws the danger of setting precedent (Stare decisis) across the country’s unequal and imbalanced education sector. The sad truth is that in our current neoliberal world, it is often the neoliberal elite (and all of us stuck in their world) that tend to invoke Stare decisis upon others, without ever even realising it (Harvey, 2005).

If those in the wealthier parts of society rush towards this new precedent, without realising what it does to the poorer inhabitants of our country, we risk furthering the already disastrous inequalities in South Africa. A quick cursory look at inequality in schools and we will see that some schools barely have a functional roof to provide shelter (Servaas, 2007). How on earth are they going to ‘follow precedent’ by conducting e-lessons? Can our society still claim to be in search for quality equal education with such neoliberal agendas at play? I think not.

If these neoliberal elite rush towards setting precedent, where online teaching becomes the new normal (or the way of showing excellence), then we also risk losing out on a number of experienced educators who have not been able to adapt to the sudden change of new technology. Human Capitalist Theorists will say that this phenomenon is part of the economy’s evolutionary life (Livingstone, 1997). But saying this removes the affectional value of human beings. Education should not be a conveyer belt for human capital in an economy. The dangers and negative side effects of that philosophy are huge, but the most important aspect of having education feed a conveyor belt for Human Capital is that is takes away teachers (and learners’) critical skills and pushes them towards the preconceived notions of economic life and the capitalist rat race that is inextricably linked to it. Education, I believe, should be about forming and moulding human beings into creative, critical thinking humans with free agency.

The original notions of neoliberalism are surprisingly similar to my belief about education. Harvey (2005, p. 2) describes the theory of neoliberalism as one that “proposes human well-being by liberating individual… freedoms… and progress”. The current neoliberal system, however, is a far cry from what its original theoretical framework attempted to achieve.

This current neoliberal system demands new, updated and relevant human capital and It does not give any second thoughts to the consequences of the lives and livelihoods of those that have become redundant. It does not seek the well-being of humans. Educators are considered mere pieces on a chessboard of the system’s self-imposed strategies. Proof of this is evident when the system harshly says that older teachers are to become obsolete if they do not upskill their knowledge of technology. How demoralising for those human beings must it be to be considered defunct and non-operational? Even worse, the system calls them ‘unwanted’ and ‘undesired’ in the Human Capital sense. How dare we set precedent in this way. How dare we toss these hard-working, selfless educators aside in the name of economic progress, excitement and fascination for technology.

I submit to you that setting precedent in this way is dangerous. As teachers across the country begin to forge a ‘new normal’ amidst the COVID-19 crisis, let us not do so to the detriment of our fellow educators and to the detriment of those we are called to educate. There is a better, moderate and less ‘invasive’ way to achieve a ‘new normal’.

Part II coming soon. 

Works Cited

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lamond, G. (2016, Spring). Precedent and Analogy in Legal Reasoning . Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/legal-reas-prec/

Livingstone, D. (1997). The Limits of Human Capital Theory: Expanding knowledge, informal learning and underemployment. Policy Options, 9-13.

Servaas, v. (2007). Apartheid’s Enduring Legacy: Inequalities in Education. Journal of African Economies, 849–880.

Timothy, O. (2017, March). Stare decisis. Retrieved from Cornell Law School: Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/stare_decisis

The irony of South African citizenship: Citizens with no rights

In a Neoliberal world, what really constitutes a citizen?

Citizenship is a hotly debated (and currently loaded) topic worldwide. Related to this idea of citizenship is the Trumpesque phenomena which is sweeping across the globe and which seems to have a common denominator amongst its main supporters. This common denominator is the ideal of wanting to prioritize one group of people (their survival and success) at all costs, even sometimes to the detriment of others around them.

I do not intend, in this post, to delve into the politics and complexities of nation states, nor do I wish to make a political statement. I simply intend to extract a few key points from the notion of citizenship and to make mention of how a distorted view of citizenship affects schools, communities and our learners (which as noted in a previous blog post, are part of a cycle of unending poverty and inequality that is infamous for being the highest in the world).

Firstly, the term citizen refers to a person who belongs to a particular country. This person enjoys certain rights, privileges and powers that come with being a part of this country. For example, South African citizens, have the right (and power) to vote and to enjoy the advantages that come with this right. Citizenship also guarantees you certain privileges with other nations. For example, South African citizens are able to travel to over 100 countries without the need to obtain a visa. A citizen also has the power to make meaningful inputs in the economic, social and religious aspects of life in that country. The idea of citizenship therefore is closely linked to the ideas of sovereignty, self-government, independence and success. It is when the latter becomes polluted, distorted and poisoned that we see social atrocities (such as inequality) abounding in society.

According to the UN, there are around 10 million stateless people across the globe[1]. These people do not enjoy the rights and privileges that come with one’s home nation. Instead they are considered ‘second-class citizens’, due to usually no fault of their own. Syrian refugees, former Yugoslavians and the Rohingya are in some way or the other considered stateless and therefore ‘second-class’ (because of the discrimination they face on a daily basis).

What does any of this have to do with South Africa’s education and our learners?

Well, the majority of South African’s live well below the poverty line and the reality is that living in a modern Neoliberal, Capitalist world has meant that the notion of a public good (what is good for the public) has changed over time. States no longer need to provide (healthcare, education, sanitation, etc) for their citizenry as in previous years. The main reason for the provision of public goods (by the government) has, in the past, generally been to sustain the nation during and/or after a war or during a natural disaster such as a famine, drought or health epidemic.

Today, however, there are many privately owned companies that function on market forces known as demand-and-supply to ensure that people are provided for. Everything and anything thinkable can be found on the market in a Neoliberal world. Healthcare, food provision, education, sanitation, correctional facilities, etc. These Neoliberal[2] and Capitalist institutions, however, only have one motivator – Profit. It is what defines Capitalism (Wilson 2011). It is what encapsulates Neoliberalism. We therefore see many (if not the majority) of people who end up not being able to purchase these commodified ‘products’ of healthcare, education, sanitation, correctional facilities (Giroux, 2015), etc, simply because they cannot afford the ridiculously steep prices!

Healthcare, Education and other life-giving rights should (I contend) never be sold as products, but our nations reality is that those who live in poverty and who are well below the poverty line are forced to follow the status quo, even if they cannot afford these products (or what I consider rights). They are often branded as second-class citizens (Bond, 2013) because of their poverty. They are stateless. They cannot enjoy the privileges and rights that should accompany being a citizen of the country.

In other words, the transformation of the public good (to a now neoliberal, capitalist-provided public good) has changed the fabric of citizenry. Citizens that have money will have access to the public good. These citizens are able to express their rights and responsibilities in ways that afford them opportunities and privileges. The majority of poor South Africans have no such opportunity. They cannot get a decent quality education; they do not have access to quality healthcare. They are second-class citizens. They have no true access to the public good (by which I mean the notion of that which benefits all of society, not just a handful of capitalist disciples).

The entire education system suffers when our own poor citizens cannot access the same quality of education as our rich citizens (Barry, 2018). Being citizens of the same country, should we not be able to access the same rights? Should we not be able to enjoy the same benefits? Is it only the rich that can access their rights? This is the Trumpesque phenomena at play. Only a select group of people seem to be benefitting in society, to the detriment of all others. In South Africa’s case it is the rich who are benefitting, making the gap between the rich and the poor even greater. The rich in general, don’t seem to be too dismayed and are seemingly acting to hold onto their benefits without considering the poorest amongst them.

Personally, working in a school that is filled to the brim with citizens who are making their rights, privileges and responsibilities count in every conceivable way, has really opened my eyes to the dark underbelly of South Africa’s citizenship irony. I cannot confine myself to working only in, with and around my privileged environment. I must venture out and provide assistance to those learners (citizens) that are considered second-class, irrespective of where they might be. I must break with the Trumpesque mentality of ‘me first’ and ensure that everyone I come into contact with has the opportunity of enjoying the rights and privileges that are afforded to them as citizens of the Republic of South Africa. I must consider others needs before my own wants.

May we all be first-class citizens in pursuit of peace, social justice and harmony.

Works Cited

Barry, K.B., 2018. The Right to Education Movements and Policies: Promises and Realities. NORRAG.

Bond, P, 2013. Debt, Uneven Development and Capitalist Crisis in South Africa: from Moody’s macroeconomic monitoring to Marikana microfinance mashonisas , Third World Quarterly, 34:4, 569-592

Giroux, G, 2015. Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang Inc.

Wilson, K, 2011. ‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: changing visual representations in development, Third World Quarterly, 32:2, 315-331.


[1] There are conflicting reports as some UN documents refer to 12 million and others around 10 million. In any case, the number is unnecessarily high.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9GPJ9fAEFo