Yesterday, the DA submitted papers to the Gauteng High Court to get an immediate order to allow all schoolchildren to attend school full time.
Over 80% of SA schools – those serving poor communities – are still operating on a rotational basis, whereby each child only attends school half the time, on alternate days or weeks. This is to satisfy government’s 1m (primary schools) and 1.5m (high schools) social distancing regulations in what would otherwise be crowded classrooms.
The argument in favour of opening schools fully is clear and compelling. The enormous harm done to poor children by denying them 50% of their school days – to their ability to learn, access food, earn a living one day, and generally thrive – far overshadows any potential benefit. In fact, it is not clear there is any benefit at all. (Not to mention the harm done to poor parents in increased childcare costs and stress.)
This argument was already made last year by the government’s own Ministerial Advisory Committee and by the South African Paediatric Association.
Denying poor children access to education and food is a gross violation of their constitutional rights to basic education, to basic nutrition, for their best interest to be paramount in all matters concerning them, and to equality.
Therefore, the DA fully expected all schoolchildren to be able to attend school full time from the start of this school year. When this turned out not to be the case, we started a campaign to make it happen.
A letter to the president went unanswered, as did various press statements. Hence our court action, which elicited a prompt response from the Department of Basic Education that they are waiting for cabinet to announce on this.
One wonders what is keeping cabinet from pushing the green button to reinstate poor children’s fundamental rights. We are already over two weeks into the school term for inland provinces. Over 10 million children are affected, meaning over 5 million actual school days of learning are being irrecoverably lost every weekday.
Any rate, either government revokes the social distancing regulations very soon to allow poor kids back to school full time, or they see the DA in court.
This sad matter brings to mind a quote I read recently by Thomas Sowell: “Politicians can solve almost any problem – usually by creating a bigger problem. But, so long as the voters are aware of the problem that the politicians have solved, and unaware of the bigger problems they have created, political “solutions” are a political success”.
South African voters need to get better at identifying the bigger problems being created by government’s “solutions”. These bigger problems are why SA is slipping backwards on almost every measure of human wellbeing, be it employment, education, or the environment.
(Don’t be fooled by the “improved” matric results. They ignore the 341 403 who should have written matric but who dropped out of school altogether sometime in the past two years.)
Meantime, the DA will keep trying to highlight these bigger problems. In this particular matter, of schoolchildren returning to school, we will probably enjoy the support of most voters.
But this is not the case for many of the issues we drive, because the problem being “solved” by government is usually more visible, emotive, measurable and/or immediate than the bigger problem being created (or harm being perpetrated) in the process.
In his brilliant little book, Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt summed it up perfectly: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”
Many of our government’s Covid regulations have been downright irrational. Others have focused too sharply on the immediate risks to some groups and failed to weigh up the consequences/harms for all groups.
Huge and growing unemployment is the very worst consequence for all groups. Less measurable is the harm to children of having to wear masks all day long in the classroom, in public areas, and even in the schoolyard while playing. This is just wrong, and if this regulation is not dropped very soon, we will take it on.
But first, let’s get them back into school full time.