As we drive into a high school on the edge of Tembisa Township in the East of Johannesburg, we are met with the voice of a teacher undertaking a revision session with her students.
The classes are empty but for a few matriculants here for revision sessions. The boards tell the story of the exams written a few days prior – with ‘START and ‘FINISH’ emblazoned in white chalk at the end of hourly intervals scratched out by the invigilator. Tracey Malawana courteously invites us in as she recounts one of the many injustices that motivated her path into the world of social justice and advocacy.
‘Sometimes you would travel to town and when you get there you would see a swimming pool, a tennis court, a soccer field. You would see a laboratory for the very first time but you might be doing science in your school’
‘We do this’ Malawana adds, ‘as part of the broader democratic struggle for a free, just and equal society’.
Madubedube, born in Magxaki in Nelson Mandela Bay is the General Secretary, with Tembisa-born Malawana is her Deputy.
‘Two black working class young women’ as Madubedube is quick to remind us, ‘who are a big f$#%^* you to the system, (we) push forward because of the aspirations of what justice looks like’. Equal Education organizes pupils, teachers, parents and community members behind the idea that the South African education system can, emerging from the nightmare of Bantu Education and asymmetrical resource allocations with in it, be foregrounded on quality and equity, across class, race and gender lines. An education system where the Michael Komape’s of the world have no likelihood of dying as they respond to the call of nature. A life or death matter.
Many of the lessons to confront the historically inherited inequity in the doors of learning and culture, are also drawn, as Madubedube is careful to observe; from currents of and lessons from past victories and failures;
‘… The lessons from the anti-Apartheid era, from the 60s to the 90s really, are critical in giving us the lessons that we need in order to consolidate the gains we understand ourselves to have made in the post-Apartheid period …. we need to build revolutionary moments that connect tandems, from the sixties, through to the next thirty years and we need to share those stories through an intergenerational process, taking care to archive and drawing the narratives around what we’ve actually learnt …’
These gains, as both Madubedube and Malawana emphasize, are grounded in placing the school community at the centre of the societal change we all envisage.
Put differently, the school is a litmus test for how effective and durable the democratic breakthrough has been, especially for the young.
The school is a site of contestation for Equal Education because of its ability to catalyze intergenerational change at a household, community and national level. As Malawana adds, ‘(it is about) how we use education as a way to eradicate social ills in the communities we come from’.
Equal Education organizes across five provinces in South Africa, and Madubedube emphasizes the importance of the rural-urban divide and how it influences their work. Madubedube is incensed by the horrific learning conditions which remain in many rural areas in South Africa.
‘There is a differentiation around the experience and context of the rural areas that is important if we think about the kind of gains we can celebrate and advocate for’, she says.
It is an important point to consider, that while the struggles for instance around sanitation are about refurbishment, maintenance and repair in the urban areas (for existing infrastructure) in many rural areas the minimum infrastructure that Equal Education has advocated for over the years, is often woefully inadequate or non-existent. There is no baseline in many cases – we have to start from scratch. Yet many of the budgetary cuts in this current phase of ‘fiscal consolidation’ have taken much needed resources for these purposes to other areas.
Spending on basic education is expected to only rise by 0.8% between this year and the 2023/24 financial year. This when compared in real terms with inflation and the annual population growth rate; suggests negative growth rates in expenditure for infrastructure in township and rural schools.
Over R2bn has been cut from the education infrastructure grant, ‘(delaying) the start of new projects this year to accommodate the reductions’, the National Treasury said in June 2020.
The young people of South Africa know this. Which is why a poster at an Equal Education picket in October 2020, reflected this – ‘Tito Hands Off Our Education Money’ - #9MillionMeals - #SchoolInfrastructureNow
It is to this context that the young Equal Education team ably led by these two young women, must respond to. The average age of a staff member at Equal Education is twenty two years old. It is a diverse team, that is interested in, ‘entrenching ideas of justice, equality and equity inside campaigns and movements that can be sustained over a long period of time’. Madubedube is frank about the difficulties. ‘Sometimes it feels like an extreme sport’, she says, ‘but on most days it’s the most rewarding experience a young person can have’.
As we conclude the interview, we see a group of matriculants trickling out after their revision session, as we do so, Tracey Malawana walks us towards the toilet block of the Tembisa school. Young women are the ones experiencing difficulties when it comes to the sanitation challenges in the schooling system she tells us.
‘If you do not have proper sanitation’ Malawana adds, ‘you cannot use the school toilets during your periods, you’d rather stay at home than deal with the sanitation issue in your school’.
It is a thankless fight, won and lost, in every block, every school, every community and contested in the corridors of power and in the line items of what is given in budgets and taken away in the unspent and unthought of.
The 29 year old Madubedube is coy about how they keep going, when no day or week is the same as that, that precedes or follows it.
‘… Our parents taught us that education is a key to a different kind of future’, she says, ‘so we every day, are testament to that kind of evolution’.
As we leave the gates of the Tembisa-based high school where we held our discussion, we recognize the untold potential of the school as a sphere of struggle and justice. It is struggle whose victory carries untold possibilities to change the unequal society we’ve all inherited. It is fundamentally a struggle for the promise enshrined in our Constitution and in the substantive content of our democratic breakthrough;