Picture: GCIS
Picture: GCIS

The more things change the more they stay the same.

While it is a cliché, it is true for the way SA’s national government has fundamentally bungled the opening of schools, causing anxiety and confusion to parents, pupils, teachers and education unions alike. It was yet another own goal for a government that was initially lauded for its quick and decisive action on the Covid-19 pandemic.

There have been a few astounding misses since the start of the lockdown just over two months ago, such as the government initially paying out an emergency social grant to only nine people, despite millions applying.

But the latest mess — this time by the basic education department — was astounding in its callousness and disregard for ordinary people who merely wanted to know when their children would return to school.

Schools have been closed since the start of the lockdown and some were set to open for pupils on June 1. The date was set, the directives gazetted and schools scrambled to ensure that they were compliant on time.

Different education unions, however, raised concerns over the readiness of schools, including in a meeting on Saturday evening with basic education minister Angie Motshekga. She was due to address a media briefing the following evening.

That in itself was cutting it fairly fine and was not the best way to advertise the department’s readiness for such a huge task. But, amazingly, things got even more shambolic. About 20 minutes before the briefing was set to start it was cancelled, and only later the nation was told that pupils would return to schools come June 8.

By that time unions had already started advising their members on what to do, while there was no word from the government, and some pupils had already returned to school hostels.

Monday was not significant merely for the return of schools but also because the economy was moved one stage lower in the national lockdown, meaning about 16-million workers were due back at work, according to academics from Wits University. With schools no longer opening and the announcement coming too late for parents to make alternative childcare arrangements, the department’s incompetence was another blow for the economy.

On Monday Motshekga apologised for the furore.

While her apology is welcome, it is too little, too late, after parents and pupils were treated with such disrespect. The reality is that schools were closed for 10 weeks and it was still not enough time for the national department to get itself organised, to the detriment of pupils, parents and teachers.

One of the main issues was simply that some schools do not have water and as a result pupils cannot do one of the most basic things: wash their hands. This is a disgraceful situation that predated the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has just brought a necessary spotlight on this.

One needs also to be mindful that this is a government that is not shy to spend scarce national resources on vanity projects. In the midst of this, we are still debating throwing billions more rand at the white elephant that is SAA, and there is a serious discussion about spending money and effort on establishing a new bank. The country may even need to find money for a new pharmaceutical company.

The fiasco over the opening of schools should be a wake-up call. SA needs to go back to basics. And there is nothing more basic than ensuring that our children can get a decent education in a safe and healthy environment. If we can’t do that, another R21bn on SAA should be out of the question.

As the source of the uncertainty, the department of basic education has failed millions of children who need an education to ensure that they are more employable.

The government needs a strong dose of reality and, by extension, there should be consequences for those who failed to do their jobs.