Covid:19: What private schools could learn from Sadtu, the govt and the British monarchy - News24

Jan 16, 2021
16 January 2021 - An unfortunate inversion played out this week as teachers' union, Sadtu, and the government demonstrated more enlightened opinions on education and the broader Covid-19 pandemic threat than South Africa's elite private schools.

Frans Cronje 
An unfortunate inversion played out this week as teachers' union, Sadtu, and the government demonstrated more enlightened opinions on education and the broader Covid-19 pandemic threat than South Africa's elite private schools.

The simple math is that the reopening of schools would have put an additional estimated 15 million people into social circulation – a number calculated from the sum of pupils in South African schools, together with some estimates of teachers and support staff. That circulation would have created opportunities for much new viral cross-pollination which would, in turn, have risked further pressure on hospitals and healthcare workers, many of whom are already serving the country at great personal risk where they confront terrible daily traumas.

The decision to delay the reopening schools was formally agreed on at the National Coronavirus Command Council earlier in the week but had, in practice, already been taken some time before that. It was a decision that was met with the support of most teaching unions, the balance of public opinion, and school bodies. Jonathan Jansen, writing in his newspaper column, captured the balance of public opinion – established in recent polling – when he warned of the "unfathomable tragedy" that might ensue should schools open.

A social conscience 

An exception was found in some of South Africa's elite private schools which, to the very last minute, seemed set to go ahead with full physical reopenings. Some proceeded to do exactly that in the hope that this would pressure the hand of policymakers to keep them open. The department said it had consulted the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa) and the National Alliance of Independent School Associations (Naisa) about the delayed reopening of schools. However it said it could only try persuade the private schools to listen. 

Elite private schools should be allowed to determine their own affairs without government interference. That independence is tenuous, though, with regulators itching to take it away – and on Friday, a new precedent to do so has been set. In addition, despite my conservative reputation, I think it is very important that South Africa's elite schools demonstrate a social conscience, actually use their influence to work towards a more equitable society, and sometimes, demonstrate the respect and good sense to put the best interests of society ahead of their own.

Of late, some have claimed to be doing exactly that, most prominently by buying into the Black Lives Matter ideology, adopting all manner of transformation charters, and generally, signalling their social virtue to anyone who will listen. But when a real test case emerges, such as the present healthcare emergency, some of those same schools behave exactly akin to the arrogant elite tropes that their left-wing detractors throw at them.

Elite schools could have opened on Monday, as some indicated they intended to, with only a moderate risk of contributing to the broader national health crisis because they are home to relatively few pupils and set to adopt some stringent screening and distancing protocols. Had they added testing protocols to the screening protocols to sieve out asymptomatic or lightly symptomatic infections, they could have opened with very little risk at all and – although the government will never grant that concession – done away with masking mandates and so on.

Misreading the national mood

But their determination to do so completely misread the social mood, and the political implications, and was about as "tone deaf" a decision, to use the popular left-wing phrase, as any institution could take in the present climate.

Over the past year, two million South Africans lost their jobs, the number of financially distressed households climbed quickly, and many businesses are deeply distressed. The societal trauma caused thereby is incalculable and is a burden that has been borne disproportionally by poorer and lower middle-class socio-economic strata, as data produced towards the end of last year demonstrated.

That climate is further exacerbated, and captured, in the desperate tales of South Africa's brave healthcare workers and the awful decisions and great personal risks they are being forced to take. 

The "optics" - to use another left-wing phrase – of South Africa's elite kids filing into their schools on Monday morning as the rest of the country's stand back to slow the pandemic's advance,  in order to prevent another hard economic lockdown and alleviate the pressure on doctors and nurses, would have been awful and deeply discomforting to anyone who has a social conscience.  

As independent schools regroup in the aftermath of the education minister's comments on Friday morning, they would be wise to consider the points below as a charter of sorts for the way to act through the rest of this pandemic – and beyond it.

- Show respect for the people and families who have been crushed financially by this pandemic by acting in a manner that will help to keep South African businesses and the economy open by doing everything possible to limit unnecessary movement of people so that a hard lockdown is not introduced again.
- Show respect and appreciation to South Africa's doctors and nurses by keep children and staff out of public circulation as far as possible until the pandemic is on the lower rungs of its downslope.
- Show society that they are also prepared to sacrifice something in pursuit of the best interests of the country – even if it is just the inconvenience of remaining at home.
- Use their great influence and resources – and that of their communities – to lobby the government and the private sector alike for the accelerated rollout of a national vaccine programme so that this trauma can come to an end.
And, beyond the pandemic, use that same influence and their resources to lobby for more parents to enjoy what elite school parents enjoy: the right and ability to decide how your child is educated.
When Buckingham Palace was bombed in the Second World War, the then Queen Elizabeth said she was pleased because "she felt she could look East Enders in the eye".

Like the monarchy in the UK, South Africa's elite private schools are one of the world's great institutions. They should act as examples to society, and lead society, and their model – of allowing parents to take charge of the education of their children – should be widely replicated across society. This past week, the government and trade unions did a better job at that.   

Frans Cronje, CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, attended two of South Africa's most elite private schools: The Ridge in Westcliff and St John's College in Houghton, and is a strong advocate for independent, charter, and contract schooling.

Support the IRR

If you want to see a free, non-racial, and prosperous South Africa, we’re on your side.

If you believe that our country can overcome its challenges with the right policies and decisions, we’re on your side.

Join our growing movement of like-minded, freedom-loving South Africans today and help us make a real difference.

© 2023 South African Institute of Race Relations | CMS Website by Juizi