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How many SA primary schoolchildren does it take to change a light bulb? If they are rural children, the answer may be "none". For there’s a good chance their school has no electricity, and therefore no light bulbs. In some cases, they may not even have a proper classroom, or proper sanitation.

Most of us can’t wait for 2020 to be over, hoping that a new year will bring respite from our Covid-ravaged existence. In some parts of our country, however, it won’t get any better — for the simple fact that every year is awful.

We’ve all read about how the pandemic has disrupted education. Politicians, many of them responsible for education, have tried to make capital out of the disparity between private and state schools. Many of the former have the resources to continue teaching far more seamlessly than their state counterparts.

The politicians have been silent, however, on the disparity between urban and rural state schools.

Indeed, many of the more remote rural schools have been left to fend for themselves. No-one has spoken up for them.

That’s nothing new. Around SA, thousands of primary schools receive almost nothing from the provincial education departments supposedly responsible for them. Visit their run-down classrooms and you may find no books, pencils, paper or desks. Several classes will be crammed into one room. Outside, pit toilets are the norm. Electricity is often absent.

Rally to Read, the rural schools programme in which the FM is a partner, has been fighting for these schools since 1998. By providing reading books, stationery, sporting goods and teacher training, we have offered a proper education where there would otherwise be none.

Hundreds of schools and nearly 300,000 children have benefited.

The average 14-year-old in rural SA has a reading age of seven. At Rally to Read schools we have bridged that gap, enabling children to progress to high school and beyond.

Covid-19, however, has interrupted our programme this year. Usually, corporate and private sponsors spend off-road weekends delivering their goods in person to schools. That’s been impossible this year. Add the fact that the financial impact of Covid-19 has convinced many companies to cut back on discretionary spending, and our revenue has been affected.

Rally to Read has no administration costs, so every cent raised goes to schools. The programme is run by unpaid volunteers headed by Brand Pretorius, former CEO of the McCarthy group. Major supporters include Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa, Shell SA and the Jonsson Foundation, the social investment arm of the Jonsson Workwear group.

Organisers have pared costs this year to deal with the drop in income. However, we have continued to provide resources to our schools, all of which are supported for three years — the minimum period required for a culture of reading and writing to become embedded.

Nevertheless, we still need more sponsors to carry our efforts over into 2021. It’s too soon to know if we will be able to resume our school visits next year. At a meeting last week, organisers considered several potential scenarios.

First choice remains the traditional rally weekend, when multiple sponsors visit several schools. Alternatives include one-day rallies, visits by individual sponsors and "virtual" visits that allow sponsors to interact online with children, teachers and parents.

Where possible, we also hope to use technology to provide children and teachers with the educational support they need — though lack of electricity and sheer geographical remoteness sometimes make that impossible.

What is certain is that Rally to Read will continue. There is no question of halting or even suspending a programme that has made such an impact and remains the only hope of a future for so many.

If the programme doesn’t stand up for SA’s forgotten rural children and their communities, who will?

Some years ago, when the government was boasting about how it was overcoming the HIV/Aids scourge, a group of Rally to Read sponsors visited a remote KwaZulu-Natal school where 60% of the children were Aids orphans.

The disease was running riot through the mountainous region where they lived. No-one had asked these children — or the grandparents who now cared for them — if the disease was on the retreat.

So with rural education. The need for support has never been greater.

*To learn more about Rally to Read or to become a sponsor, visit www.rallytoread.org.za

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