An estimated 1.5-million pupils in South Africa are not at school – and it is not difficult to see why.
I always find these visits difficult, both physically and emotionally. We spend our days driving to schools on gravel roads, either in sweltering heat or icy cold. In the rainy season, we leave extra time to get to our meetings in case bridges en route to schools have washed away. And with each visit the challenges increase as we see an education system literally crumbling: a school whose toilets have collapsed will show us the roof that has blown off; a school that did not receive textbooks will recount the everyday battles such as not being able to afford chalk and paper.
On this visit, we were asked to visit a community approximately one hour’s drive from Giyani. In 2008, the community was promised a secondary school in their village. Five years later, more than 400 pupils still walk long distances to school in neighbouring villages, battling thorn bushes, poisonous snakes and crime along the way.
They cannot attend school during the rainy season, when the river they are required to cross floods. About 350 pupils in the village have dropped out of school. It is just too hard for them to get there.
This gives us a clue as to why an estimated 1.5-million pupils across South Africa are not at school, with more dropping out of school every day.
This is the only village in the area without its own secondary school. The same community does not have a clinic either.
At the end of our meeting, one of the community members put up his hand and asked: “Why should we trust you? You are not the first person to promise that you will try to help us.”
Backwards and forwards communication
Why indeed? Not only have these empty promises of schools and clinics failed to deliver quality basic education, healthcare and other basic services, but they have also eroded any level of trust that the community’s needs will be met.
On our way back from the meeting, we received a call from the chairperson of a school governing body. The roof over one of the classroom blocks at this school blew off in a storm earlier this year. School had to be cancelled in rainy or windy weather. Pupils wrote their mid-year exams outside under the trees because this was safer than writing inside a structure that could collapse on them at any time.
The school alerted the Limpopo education department and received no response. Our letters to the department similarly went unanswered, until the national department of basic education assured us that mobile classrooms had been delivered to the school.
Our client instructed us otherwise. After some backwards and forwards communication, we discovered that the mobile classrooms had in fact been delivered – but to the wrong school. That was a stroke of luck for this school, though, whose acceptance of these mobile classrooms suggested that they needed them too.
Just under two hours later, I arrived at Polokwane International Airport to catch my flight to Johannesburg. Feeling tired from travelling and with a few hours to spare I went in search of a cup of tea. I discovered the newly built airport lounge, the picture of decadence, free to all passengers flying out of Polokwane.
The lounge is lavish, the couches are soft, the tea is served in perfect porcelain cups and there is a menu (presented electronically on a tablet) with an endless list of gourmet meals, fine wines and rare whiskies to choose from. Nobody got the drinks orders wrong. There were no shortages of anything on the menu. The needs of every traveller in that lounge were met fully and instantly by smartly dressed waiters and waitresses.
From my soft seat I looked out of the grand windows, thinking about where I had been just a few hours earlier. My day really was a tale of two cities: one a poverty-stricken village lacking in all basic services necessary for the human dignity of the thousands of inhabitants living there; the other a luxurious environment, meeting the needs of a few travellers, regardless of who they were.
While our Constitution specifically requires measures in realisation of the rights to basic education, health, food, water and social security, it contains nothing that mandates the construction of a lavish airport lounge such as this one.
I am reminded of the popular novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which tells the story of a country divided into a Capitol and 12 districts. People in the districts fight for survival on a daily basis. They work in mines or factories for meagre salaries. They do not have adequate food. They are forced to sacrifice much for the comfort of the privileged few in the Capitol.
Those living in the Capitol lead lives of excess. They live in grand houses and eat delicious food. Their clothes are beautifully tailored, and they wear flashy jewellery. They dye their skin and their hair bright colours to express their moods.
The light-hearted, colourful residents of the Capitol see the daily struggles of those living in the districts, and they do nothing to address this injustice. They are too comfortable, too afraid, too complacent to risk sacrificing their daily luxuries to ease the daily struggles of their fellow human beings.
Fortunately, we do not live in a country where the “hunger games” are the annual event the novel describes, in which randomly chosen members of the districts have to engage in fights to the death. But we are not far off from the Capitol and the districts.
Every day those in the rural districts struggle for their basic needs to be met. Their rights are violated in the most basic ways. And literally down the road the privileged few are being attended to by polite staff in sequined jackets, choosing their needs from the latest technology and having them met with no questions asked and no need to wait.
Nikki Stein is an attorney at the public interest law centre and rights organisation Section27