The first day of school has always been a day of excitement and anticipation. Parents, scholars and teachers all courageously embark on a journey into the unknown. The start of the new school year is filled with joy and even a little bit of dread for all scholars.
However, for approximately 30,000 scholars in Gauteng, the beginning of school 2018 was filled with trepidation and anxiety, as the Gauteng department of education was unable to place them in schools. The 30,000 scholars affected are fewer than the 40,000 who were affected in 2017, but substantially more than the 9,000 who were affected in 2016.
It is astonishing that even though the exact date of the first day of the new school year is always known at least a year in advance, it seems to come as a surprise to Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi and his team every year.
The shortage of schools and lack of funds are always given as reasons, and I am amazed at the absence of outrage from parents and society at large. There is little insistence on better service delivery.
Instead, the country's attention is again being deflected: this time, by the language issue at Hoërskool Overvaal. After the court judgment, it seems clear that the Overvaal stand-off is an example of the government failing to provide a sufficient number of schools, and then blaming a school's inability to accommodate students on racism.
The number of learners without placements are, according to the Gauteng department of education, due to migration, late applications, and the refusal of parents to accept placements at schools that are not their preference.
If the department were able to plan for all eventualities, it would be helpful. Timeous cooperation with all relevant government departments to get schools built and teachers trained will assist in alleviating the anxiety experienced by scholars about to enter primary school and high school.
The unacceptably high number of students who in the second week of the new school year remain without a desk in a classroom is certainly not helped by the accusation of racism levelled against an Afrikaans-medium school that appears to have a diverse student population. Afrikaans is not spoken by white people only; even I was schooled in an Afrikaans primary school, even though my mother tongue is English.
We can thus be forgiven for thinking that our problem is Hoërskool Overvaal, when in fact the problem is the ineffectiveness of MEC Lesufi and the Gauteng Department of Education.
The debate about access to education and language rights is legitimate, necessary, and long overdue. However, must it be now, when so many young learners cannot be placed in schools? When scholars and parents alike are drowning in a sea of uncertainty?
It seems that in order to divert attention from the failures of the Gauteng department of education, Hoërskool Overvaal has become the shiny object that has captured our attention since the start of the 2018 school year.
As the year progresses, students will be placed in schools and flared-up tempers will cool down. South Africans will go about their daily lives, forgetting about the children traumatised by the uncertainty of not getting a place in a school, while other scholars were traumatised by burning tyres, a petrol bomb and protesting adults.
Until the start of the next school year in 2019, when – as was the case for the past three years – the placement saga is likely to be repeated. Maybe parents will wise up to the tactics employed by MEC Panyaza Lesufi to distract attention from the actual problem.
As a nation, we face so many challenges that we are relieved when there is one less squeaking cog demanding our attention. We can thus be forgiven for thinking that our problem is Hoërskool Overvaal, when in fact the problem is the ineffectiveness of MEC Lesufi and the Gauteng department of education – for the third year in a row, they have failed parents and children, the majority of whom are from previously disadvantaged communities.
As South Africans, we must guard against being hoodwinked by politicians who would like us to believe that racism is to blame for everything, while our government continues to fail our children – who remain our country's greatest assets and ultimate symbols of hope.