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 myth of suburbia

In the midst of COVID19 and lockdown in South Africa, there has been much commentary on the class fault lines suggesting a return to ‘normal’ should never be contemplated. In the space of a few weeks, we have seen forced removals under the guise of court sanctioned removals, outcry over the temporary homeless shelter in Strandfontein and the chaos of competition for basic food parcels in both Manenberg and Mitchell’s Plain. Perhaps the best illustration defining this purported class schism within the pandemic are contained in the photo essay published by the Daily Maverick on 8 April 2020. Beyond politics, social activists point to a country reminiscent of the tale of two cities, the privileged and the poor. Irrespective of the validity of differing socioeconomic and health analyses, it is clear that as Vannie Kaap would say that ‘alles is nie reg by die huis nie’. 

Cape Town and Johannesburg, both epicenters of the confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, are a microcosm of a broader reality facing middle class South Africa. It is not a popular topic. Certainly not as public-figures amongst these ranks appear to muddy individual liberties with lobbying for the alcohol and tobacco industry. The Woolworths rotisserie chicken debacle entrenched the picture of a class so out of touch with the socioeconomic realities of their country, that they would call the current President, the worst ever in our history. Tone deaf given actions of many political leaders during Apartheid. To seemingly place their right not to cook above a growing majority who have nothing to cook appears grossly inhumane.  A perception has emerged that the middle class have finally drawn a line around their suburbs – a line guarded by lawyers, willing to litigate that some interests and livelihoods are ostensibly more valuable than others, some lives more dispensable than others. The truth however is not as simple as social media would have us believe. 

In 2019, the Southern African – Towards Inclusive Economic Development (SA-TIED) released a working paper which used in part data from the South African Revenue Service. Key findings included that the wealth of the top 1% was doubling whilst the remainder saw stagnation. Who are the 1%? According to SA-TIED, individuals earning R800,000 per annum. In the same year, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) published data suggesting that the top 1% was made up of individuals earning R48,753 per month. This study placed the middle class as being top 10% that earned R7,313 a month. In perspective, the median wage is R3,300. Herein lies the myth of the middle class in South Africa. The work of Dr Jason Musyoka of the University of Pretoria packages the disparate data and suggests that there are few South Africans, of all races, that are both not poor and yet don’t own assets beyond a salaried or regular monthly income. Researchers place this percent at around 20% of the population. In sum, South Africa is not a middle class, but rather a working class society. When seen in this context, the dynamics of the class war seemingly raging in South Africa takes on a new perspective. A perspective of which I think lays squarely at the door of mischievous politicians on all sides of the spectrum.

Our political narrative has been one of poverty versus privilege as if they were binary. The economics without the politicking tell a different story. The 13 May 2019 cover of Time Magazine starkly shows that the middle class is not to be found in Camps Bay or Sandton but in communities in the likes Boksburg, Pretoria Moot and Retreat. Somewhere between the salary percentiles of R3,300 and R48,753 is a sea of over-indebtedness to the extent the people outside the 1% are turning to credit to cover costs such as groceries, transport, education and healthcare. In a 2019 interview, Paul Slot from the Debt Counselling Association indicated that around 10 million had bad debt, with an average of 8 loans each, spending typically 63% of monthly income on debt servicing.  These figures give credence to the assertion that above the 6.8 million Stats SA indicated had experienced hunger in 2017, food insecurity is a far wider challenge that encompasses to a degree the working and middle class. Even amongst the limited few who have access to tertiary education, are many who at times struggle to access affordable and nutritious food, which the Centre of Excellence in Food Security describes as ‘a skeleton in universities’ closets’

There is a good argument to be made, without undermining the impoverished conditions of 60% of our population, that the socioeconomic conditions prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, were more pervasive than partisan public discourse would have us believe. Within this context, it is understandable that those in the 20% are afraid of what lockdown means for their families’ survival. The reasonable fear is played upon by right-leaning organizations to reinforce neoliberal agendas. This coupled with eloquent communication by provocateurs who do not represent the lived reality of those they claim to represent, creates a false history of this tale of two cities as it were. If the wail for rotisserie chicken was made, it was done by those who would need to pay for it on credit, but more likely an opportunity seized by the 1% to drum up sympathetic support amongst two classes, smaller than the majority, but already long buckling under the weight of economic decline. 

The true bearer of the flag of privilege is the 1%.

The remaining 99% are separated by degrees of poverty.

Whilst we don’t know what realities we will face on the other side of COVID19, we must be wary to ignite a class war that has no winners except those with no pun intended, already in the pound seat.