Solving The Port Elizabeth School Tragedy

The school tragedy in Port Elizabeth is the latest episode in the ongoing Eastern Cape education disaster. Recently public intellectual, Professor Jonathan Jansen, wrote about the school tragedy in Port Elizabeth’s northern areas. Read his original column here: The real education calamity. He asks “why is there no public outcry about the fact that since the school year started more than 50 schools had not started classes?

A friend sent me the article via Facebook. My first reaction was anger and blame and I want to share it with you below:

RT: Yes, this is a fact in the northern areas (Coloured townships) of Port Elizabeth. Now what is Dr Jonathan Jansen doing about it besides writing newspaper columns that he gets paid to write every week? [I am referring to all journalists who offer grand solutions from the comfort of their laptops].

AQ: I don’t know him or his responsibilities/capacity to do anything, but it’s not just about him tho. This eventually becomes everyone’s problem. Poorly educated children become ignorant and frustrated adults

RT: My point is this is common knowledge in Port Elizabeth area. And the parents are fighting SADTU union [and the MEC for Education, Mandla Makupula] which is virtually impossible to defeat.

Jonathan Jansen always writes these kinds of articles, and it’s easy to write about the problems and much more difficult to do something. HE, being a respected “Coloured” leader has been to Port Elizabeth (and Uitenhage) before, and can easily organise public meetings to mediate this conflict.

The MEC in Education in the Eastern Cape is useless as you know, so people like him with authority must can step off his high horse and engage more directly.

AQ: Why isn’t he being challenged on it then

RT: I am challenging you for believing everything he is writing.

AQ: Why haven’t you challenged him

RT: I have. He blocked me on Twitter when I asked him difficult questions. We have also spoken at the same conference at St Stitians College in Johannesburg in 2011.

AQ: My view is we are all responsible for the resolution of these problems part of that responsibility is consciousness and awareness. In this particular case I’m too far removed from the Port Elizabeth social discourse to engage meaningfully, however such situations grate me wherever they are. So my responsibility is to firstly be conscious of what is happening and in that regard I’m limited to what is available online and interacting with people like yourself, fortunately/unfortunately I cannot always judge character/political alignment and have to take the articles at face value, bottom line I feel it’s my responsibility to understand that there is a problem, extent of the problem and in my way and spaces contribute to its containment and hopefully resolution

AQ: I think we sometimes put people on pedals of responsibility when we know that they either lack the capacity or will (moral or otherwise) to be there

School tragedy in Port Elizabeth turned to violence
WHEELS COME OFF: Residents of Arcadia in Port Elizabeth have been blockading roads with burning tyres in ongoing protest action demanding more teachers for the 50 local schools. The stand-off with government has meant no schooling in the northern parts of the city so far this year Image by: EUGENE COETZEE

RT: Sure. I fact I am challenging you (to question the Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s responsibility) because you sent me the news story without any context or opinion.

— end of Facebook Inbox discussion —

Mandla Makupula MEC for Education in Eastern CapeThere was some flaws in my argument. Teachers are not fighting teachers union SADTU, they are both fighting the provincial Eastern Cape MEC of Education, Mandla Makupula. The school tragedy in Port Elizabeth is exacerbated by the gang and drug problem similar to that on the Cape Flats.

And after re-reading the original column, Professor Jansen does indeed offer some good practical advice:

  1. Activists must use social media to o signal for public attention flashpoints around the country where children are being denied education.
  2. Responsible media needs to draw attention to these hot spots with, say, a running front-page spot carrying a reverse count-down message like “#32 days still without education in Port Elizabeth’s northern suburbs”.
  3. Similar public notices can be carried for “Schools still without textbooks” or more pointedly “School X still without principal after three months.”

After all, I want to put his suggestions into practise. This is the type of challenge I thrive on.

Critisism of Professor Jonathan Jansen:

Government and The School Tragedy in Port Elizabeth

Eastern Cape’s MEC for Education Mandla Makupula unsuccessly tried to solve this teacher shortage problem in Port Elizabeth in 2015. This seems to have reached a stale mate.


Jonathan Jansen: Dear President Zuma. I am writing to you out of desperation.

This open letter is reprinted without permission from the Times website. I feel very strong about education, and Prof Jansen is one of the few voices that speak with authority about education in South Africa. For real practical solutions I highly recommend the work of John Taylor Gatto.

Jonathan Jansen education expert university of free state vice-chancellorDesperation is an emotion I seldom feel, except in relation to education, for I believe very deeply that for most of our children, a solid school education represents the only means available for ending the cycle of family poverty. Skills come later. Economic growth even later. Social cohesion lies far in the distance. What matters is that children complete 12 years of schooling with the ability to read, write, reason, calculate and express confidence for purposes of further studies, skills training and higher education.

At various moments during your leadership, I have been encouraged, sir, by your standpoint on education. You are absolutely correct to insist on teachers being in school, teaching, every day. You are right, of course, to insist on materials being available for learning. You cannot be faulted for requiring performance contracts from the ministers who report to you on progress in education. Your own biography as a man who has sacrificed his own schooling in that broader quest for liberation, is something I admire.

The problem, Mr President, is the distance between what you stand for and the day-to-day operations of schools in our country.

Unlike most of your MECs for education, I do not for one moment believe the crisis in schooling lies inside the schools themselves. Having visited thousands of schools over the past decades, and having spoken to (and taught) thousands of pupils across the nine provinces, I can assure you that the children are the least of your problems.

With the right leadership and authority in place, with enthusiastic teachers ready to teach, and with organisational routines (starting on time, homework every day, solid teaching, and so on) running like clockwork, children anywhere in the world respond positively to the efforts of adults to educate them. So, I am not speaking about the children.

It is clear to me that at the moment the control of schools does not rest with government. It rests with the teacher unions. Until this simple fact is acknowledged, it is impossible to create the kinds of conditions in and around schooling that provide for predictable teaching timetables and powerful learning environments.

This is, I know, difficult terrain for public discussion. After all, the largest teachers’ union is part of the massive labour federation, which has a critical role in who stays in or comes to power in the next rounds of election.

But, Mr President, I believe you can and should look beyond the politics of succession that comes in five-year cycles, and look to the long-term development of the country and the prospects of tens of thousands of youth who routinely fail examinations every year and who fuel the numbers of frustrated youth who turn on society and themselves. This is the single most important challenge you face, and it cannot be resolved by pedagogical means, only through political intervention.

To signal your seriousness about this crisis, Sir, I propose you appoint an “Education Crisis Panel of Experts” to guide you and our government on how to resolve the education standoff as a matter of urgency. Please do not appoint activists to this panel, unless they are also experts; and do not see these appointments as ways of rewarding loyalty in the past or present; there are other commissions that can and have achieved such objectives.

Ensure, Mr President, that these are people who actually know how to turn around schools, and who are unlikely to tell you what you want to hear. You made an excellent start by hiring Dr Cassius Lubisi as your director general; I have worked with him for many years. You will not find a person of greater integrity, passion and insight. Perhaps he could chair the panel.

I propose, if I may, the following names: Linda Vilikazi-Tselane, Muavia Gallie, Anita Maritz, James Letuka, Brian Isaacs, Sibusiso Maseko, Nontsha Liwane-Mazengwe, Stephen Lowry, Sharon Lewin, Itumeleng Molale and Margerida Lopez. These are some of the most hardworking principals and education thinkers I have ever known.

They boast track records of success in changing schools. These are among finest South African educators when it comes to love of school and country.

They are fiercely independent in thinking, and unsentimental in their ideas about the bottom line: the learning achievements of our children.

Mr President, I wait to hear from you.