Nwabisa Makunga: Invest in future of our nation

It was the mid-1980s.

I must have been in Sub A (Grade 1). I left school in Addo that Friday afternoon with my grandmother, who was also my no-nonsense school principal.

As we did every weekend, we went to visit my grandfather at our family home in KwaNobuhle, Uitenhage.

I do not remember anything about that weekend, except that the next Monday, instead of my grandmother and I taking a train back to Addo, my grandfather drove us.

Along the way I noticed that she was very upset and, as we drove into the schoolyard, I realised why.

Her beloved AV Bukani Primary School had been burned down.

A block of what was then a relatively new building – officially opened with much pomp and ceremony a few years before – was gutted.

Trevor Manuel  Picture: JAMES OATWAY/Sunday Times
Trevor Manuel. Picture: JAMES OATWAY/Sunday Times

I never understood the reason behind the arson.

From the conversations I overheard between the teachers, I concluded that it was all part of the turbulent political struggle of the time.

The ’80s were some of the darkest years this country has ever seen.

Nonetheless, in the few years that followed, I witnessed what I believe should be a longstanding blueprint on how to make schools work.

I witnessed a community rally around the school, advancing a culture of collective responsibility for even the most primary of needs.

Despite the violent politics, the poverty and general hardship of the time, they pulled together to lay a solid foundation for which many of us will always be grateful.

I watched them rebuild, literally from ashes, a humble place of learning, premised on a simple value of partnership between those employed at the school and the community they served.

I was there when a small mud church nearby opened its doors to accommodate those of us whose classrooms had been burnt.

I marvelled at how it was no longer up to our elderly caretaker alone to patrol and guard the school.

Families who lived close by, from young men to grannies, kept a watchful eye over a property they called their own.

I remember young women volunteering to help us clean our classrooms on Fridays.

I remember older volunteers working in the school garden, selling the little it produced to put some money into the school kitty.

I remember my grandmother beaming as she told the school during assembly one day that there was enough money in the kitty to buy balls for the netball and rugby teams. The whole arrangement was not perfect, not by a long shot. But it worked.

These memories came flooding back on Saturday evening as I listened to some of Port Elizabeth’s most influential people celebrate 70 years of Cowan High School.

The celebration at the ETC Conference Centre was delightful.

Cowan is a formidable institution that has carved its place in our history as a breeding ground for some of South Africa’s best minds.

But, like many schools in our country, it exists in a broken society.

It is therefore not immune to the education crisis laid bare in sobering detail by the guest speaker, former cabinet minister Trevor Manuel, on Saturday.

The statistics as presented by Manuel of the outcomes of our education system are staggering.

Frankly, as a nation, we should be ashamed that two decades into our democracy, 66% of children in schools have not learnt to read by Grade 3.

The domino effect on high schools, colleges and even universities is simply mindblowing.

At Cowan High School, however, someone has done something about it.

I was inspired by the many men and women in that room determined to invest, financially and otherwise, in order to change the script for the children of Cowan.

I was inspired by the efforts of businessman Khusta Jack and his team, who believe that the wellbeing of that school is as much their responsibility as it is that of the current staff.

I am aware of many other schools in our country which benefit from similar collective efforts by those who care enough to help.

I am equally concerned, however, that not enough of us care.

And this is precisely the problem.

I believe that in our frustration with the government’s catastrophic failure to properly educate our children, many of us have neglected our own responsibility as active citizens to invest in the future of our nation.

Not enough people speak up and protect vandalised schools.

Granted, we live in a dangerous society and doing so could be inviting trouble.

But I believe that without brave men and women who are willing to stand in the gap and fight for the greater good, we will remain trapped in a neverending cycle of fear and destruction, robbing our children of their basic right to be given the tools they need to flourish.

I believe that not enough of us are willing to extend a helping hand to children who struggle with the most basic concepts of learning.

Not enough of us are willing to support efforts to fight drugs at school.

Our reality is such that to mend this crisis, we cannot simply pay the government and then walk away.

Certainly, we must demand better political and administrative management of our education system.

But, similarly to my Addo community in the 1980s, we must also invest in a collective vision to see particularly those schools in need being able to function.

Manuel lamented on Saturday that failing to do so would see history judge us for having taken children of the poor and made them nobodies. I agree. The multigenerational consequences of that are unspeakable.

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