What does education cost in SA? Sometimes, everything

What does education cost in SA? Sometimes, everything

The family of Kulani Mathebula, who was stabbed to death near his school, Mondeor High School, south of Johannesburg, watches his lifeless body being loaded into an ambulance, 13 March 2018. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Children pay with their childhoods for an education in South Africa… and with their lives.

What does it cost the average South African parent to put a child through school? For too many parents, the real answer is everything.

Not only do they pay in rands and cents – they also pay with their mental health and quality of life. If that means working long hours, commuting on public transport for up to four hours a day and forgoing the care of their own health, parents have no option but to do just that.

To them, it is a promising investment, ensuring that they have not conceived a child in vain – that they have helped create a fully functional member of society with more freedom than they will ever enjoy.

As depressing a perspective as this is, it is a reality for thousands of people you may have passed on the street today, marching on in long lines for the daily commute, hooting rudely behind you in traffic or serving you from behind a counter.

Government’s ineptitude in serving the needs of these people and their children is not just a headline or a tweet to scroll past. Society’s descent into a violent youth, presided over by equally violent and uncaring elders, is not just content for a campaign on Human Rights Day. Parents are tired and their children are suffering.

The true cost of an education in South Africa was a premise that dawned on me this week as I watched a young mother – not much older than me – fall apart in unspeakable grief, having paid the ultimate price for trying to put her child through South Africa’s education system.

It is a system that exists within a broken and poorly managed policing system.

It exists in a society where criminals are getting younger, angrier and more violent.

We are not, in any official sense, a country in conflict the way many other African countries are and where children learn to use a gun before they learn to use a pen. Yet, the rate at which children are killing and dying could rival that of countries fighting insurgency.

The conflict-related death rate in Somalia is only slightly higher than South Africa’s murder rate. Yet we have a policing system that was initially designed to protect a small proportion of the population from the black majority during apartheid. Legislation on policing still seems to assume that children who go unloved and uncared for in large masses do not pose a risk to others, including their peers in the schooling environment.

Children pay with their childhoods for an education in South Africa. They learn far too early in life that their bodies and what little belongings they have make them targets for other broken children. They also learn should they not brave the cruel, unpoliced streets that lead to school, should they not brace themselves for violence at their place of learning, they stand the risk of becoming the monsters they live in fear of.

The grand illusion that high suburban walls and newly built face-brick schools with state-of-the-art technology can coexist with a marginalised majority in conflict with itself would be a joke, if it wasn’t so deadly.

Debates over the state of the education system aside, it is clear it cannot work on its own. A teenager on the precipice of reaching that matric milestone that eludes so many others parted with his life, alone and bleeding in a leafy suburban street, about 200m from a police station.

Children pay with their lives for an education in South Africa.

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni.

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