South Africa’s elite private schools should be allowed to determine their own affairs without government interference – but they should take great care not to overlook the interests of wider society, and the considerable scope for using their influence to advance them.

I make this argument in the light of an unfortunate inversion which played out last week as teachers’ union Sadtu and the government demonstrated more enlightened opinions on education and the broader Covid-19 pandemic threat than South Africa’s elite private schools.

Consider the context: reopening schools would have put an additional estimated 15 million people into social circulation, the sum of the country’s pupils, together some teachers and support staff. This would have created opportunities for much new viral cross-pollination which would, in turn, have risked further pressure on hospitals and healthcare workers, many of whom are already serving the country at great personal risk where they confront terrible daily traumas.

Against this risk, the National Coronavirus Command Council’s decision to delay the reopening of schools was supported by most teaching unions, the balance of public opinion, and school bodies. Leading educationist Jonathan Jansen captured the balance of public opinion established in recent polling when he wrote of the ‘unfathomable tragedy’ that might ensue should schools open.

Yet, to the very last minute, some of South Africa’s elite private schools seemed set to go ahead with full physical reopenings. Some proceeded to do exactly that in the hope that this would pressure the hand of policymakers to keep them open. The department said it had consulted the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (Isasa) and the National Alliance of Independent School Associations (Naisa) – but could only try to persuade the private schools to listen.

It is right, and desirable, that elite private schools be allowed to determine their own affairs without interference from the government. But that independence is tenuous, with regulators itching to take it away. I fear a precedent to do so was set last week.

I am a strong advocate for independent, charter, and contract schooling, and indeed I am a beneficiary of such education, having attended two of South Africa’s most elite private schools, The Ridge in Westcliff and St John’s College in Houghton.

More equitable society

But, despite my conservative reputation, I think it is very important that South Africa’s elite schools demonstrate a social conscience, actually use their influence to work towards a more equitable society, and be willing to demonstrate the respect and good sense to put the best interests of society ahead of their own.

Some have claimed to be doing exactly that, most prominently by buying into the Black Lives Matter ideology, adopting all manner of transformation charters, and generally signalling their social virtue to anyone who will listen. But when a real test case emerges, such as the present healthcare emergency, some of those same schools behave exactly akin to the arrogant elite tropes that their left-wing detractors throw at them.

Elite schools could have opened today, as some indicated they intended to, with only a moderate risk of contributing to the broader national health crisis because they are home to relatively few pupils and set to adopt some stringent screening and distancing protocols. Had they added testing protocols to the screening protocols to sieve out asymptomatic or lightly symptomatic infections, they could have opened with very little risk at all and – although the government will never grant that concession – done away with masking mandates and so on.

But their determination to do so completely misread the social mood, and the political implications, and was about as ‘tone deaf’ a decision, to use the popular left-wing phrase, as any institution could take in the present climate.

Societal trauma is incalculable

Over the past year, two million South Africans lost their jobs, the number of financially distressed households climbed quickly, and many businesses are deeply distressed. The resulting societal trauma is incalculable and is a burden borne disproportionally by the poor and less well-off.

That climate is further exacerbated, and captured, in the desperate tales of South Africa’s brave healthcare workers and the awful decisions and great personal risks they are being forced to take.

The ‘optics’ – to use another left-wing phrase – of South Africa’s elite kids filing into their schools as everyone else stood back to slow the pandemic’s advance, prevent another hard economic lockdown and alleviate the pressure on doctors and nurses, would have been awful and deeply discomforting to anyone with a social conscience. 

For these reasons, I believe independent schools need to pause and reflect.

I would suggest the following as a charter of sorts to guide their actions through the rest of this pandemic – and beyond it:

  • Show respect for the people and families who have been crushed financially by this pandemic by acting in a manner that will help to keep South African businesses and the economy open by doing everything possible to limit unnecessary movement of people so that a hard lockdown is not introduced again;
  • Show respect and appreciation to South Africa’s doctors and nurses by keep children and staff out of public circulation as far as possible until the pandemic is on the lower rungs of its downslope;
  • Show society that they are also prepared to sacrifice something in pursuit of the best interests of the country – even if it is just the inconvenience of remaining at home; and
  • Use their great influence and resources – and that of their communities – to lobby the government and the private sector alike for the accelerated roll out of a national vaccine programme so that this trauma can come to an end.

Extending their influence

Beyond the pandemic, this ought to be the basis of extending their influence and their resources in lobbying for more parents to enjoy what elite school parents enjoy: the right and ability to decide how their child is educated.

In an earlier version of this piece published on News24 at the weekend, I recalled the remark of a member of the British monarchy during the Second World War. When Buckingham Palace was hit during a German air raid in the Blitz on London, the then Queen Elizabeth said she was pleased because ‘she felt she could look East Enders in the eye’.

I noted that, like the British monarchy, South Africa’s elite private schools are one of the world’s great institutions. Their challenge is to act as examples to society, and lead society in a way that demonstrates why their model – of allowing parents to take charge of the education of their children – should be widely replicated across society. Last week, the government and trade unions did a better job of showing the way.

[Picture: Juanita Mulder from Pixabay

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Frans Cronje was educated at St John’s College in Houghton and holds a PHD in scenario planning. He has been at the IRR for 15 years and established its Centre for Risk Analysis as a scenario focused research unit servicing the strategic intelligence needs of corporate and government clients. It uses deep-dive data analysis and first hand political and policy information to advise groups with interests in South Africa on the likely long term economic, social, and political evolution of the country. He has advised several hundred South African corporations, foreign investors, and policy shapers. He is the author of two books on South Africa’s future and scenarios from those books have been presented to an estimated 30 000 people. He writes a weekly column for Rapport and teaches scenario based strategy at the business school of the University of the Free State.