As he had promised, Gauteng MEC for Education Panyazi Lesufi paid a visit yesterday to Helpmekaar Kollege after that school had decided that it would not align itself with government requests to close but keep its doors open for face-to-face learning.

Standing on the steps of that great and storied institution Mr Lesufi said he had been ‘flooded with reports that there were schools who thought they should go ahead [and reopen]’ and that he was there to ‘persuade the private education system’ to keep its doors shut and that he was pleased that the school had ‘reconsidered’ and agreed to ‘migrate to online learning’.   

Mr Lesufi went on to say that there were other schools, which he described as ‘culprits’ – and made specific mention of Curro Schools – which had also ‘reconsidered’ their position after his intervention and agreed to close. Finally, Mr Lesufi warned ‘any other school that is private or independent that is opening…is in defiance of the state….we will persuade them…and if they cannot be persuaded, we have to act…and in acting we will find a mechanism within the law’.     

How do you translate that bit of political theatre and its rather sinister ending? And what does it have to do with what I wrote at the weekend, and yesterday?

To spell it out – because my earlier more subtle writing on the subject has been charged with being ‘too clever by half’ – the greatest threat now posed by Covid-19 to South African education is the threat to the autonomy of its independent schools. This is greater than the healthcare threat which, as I specified, could be overcome if independent schools practised a strict testing and screening protocol – a regimen that could even do away with the nuisance of masking.   

The big target

Across the ANC and much of the education activist community there is a misgiving about the role of private institutions in education. They are described as ‘elitist’, accused of breeding ‘inequality’, and of ‘profiteering’ from what their critics attest should be ‘a public good’. As a consequence, there is a political and ideological movement to have their independence curtailed. This has been difficult to justify to date despite the extent to which politicians and activists have resorted to the rallying cry of ‘institutional racism’ to do so, succeeding thereby in eroding some SGB powers. But the big target is the elite private schools – and corporate schools – such as those run by Curro and these have to date been left relatively unscathed by their activist critics.   

But a public health emergency is an entirely different proposition from isolated accusations of racism. If elite schools could be cast as reckless and a threat to public health – particularly in the current fearful climate – then a lobby with public support could perhaps be quite easily built around legislation that might be proposed to enable the erosion of their autonomy. That will be the beginning of the end of the institution of private schooling in South Africa; soon, political commissars – taking the form of regulators – would be required to sit on school boards, approve the budget, set fee increases, and determine class sizes and staff appointments. It would be a case study of political entryism and incrementalism at its finest – a rodeo that my colleagues and I, to put it with understated subtlety, have seen before.

I would like to write it off as indicative of the madness that has invaded the minds of some once sensible purported classically liberal thinkers in the aftermath of the defeat of Mr Trump, but I have been accused this week of being a left-wing activist and supporter of Sadtu for advising independent schools to stay shut – or, as I put it to one, that ‘discretion is now the better part of valour’.

Battle-hardened ideological warriors

My most angry critics fail to grasp my point that at this time, and in the present context, South Africa’s independent schooling establishment is no match, tactically or strategically, for battle-hardened ideological warriors such as Sadtu and Mr Lesufi. These institutions and individuals are very good at what they do – and, as adversaries, you must learn to treat them with great respect.

To say that independent schools might learn from Sadtu is not to say that Sadtu is great, but serves to reveal just what a muddle those schools are in. 

Sensing perhaps the threat in the air – there is always some feeling for these things, and that the social mood is changing – many elite schools (though to its great credit not Helpmekaar, as far as I am aware) have bought into the ideology of critical race theory, and the Black Lives Matter movement it inspired, in some fuzzy hope that if they demonstrate their wokeness, the threat they sense might not materialize. It is a naïve hope, as those schools have become – through their teachings and statements – enablers of the very ideology that drives threats to their autonomy, an ideology no different from that which inspires Mr Lesufi and the EFF.

At this time, many of the elite schools, and sometimes the corporations that own them, do not get this, which has greatly complicated efforts to alert them to the dangers.  

Some parents have contacted me to say that these are their schools, the government has no right to interfere in them, and they will stand and fight. It is an admirable spirit – to a point, as was that of Helpmekaar before it capitulated. But unfortunately it is one that will fail, given that the bulk of elite schools and the institutions necessary to guard private school autonomy are not up to the fight, have very little strategic-political acumen, and will in any event first have to be weaned off their endorsement of critical race theory, turn 180 degrees, and adopt a very different set of guiding principles. And that will take a long time. This is the primary current obstacle in talking to these schools about the threats they face – and even saying as much causes many to break off the conversation right there.  

A new ‘Brackenfell’

What was set to happen, therefore, had prominent independent schools reopened and stayed open was that activists would have used their example to create a new ‘Brackenfell’ – a political platform and rallying cry, this time against elite schools. The few schools and individuals with the guts to stand and fight would soon have been abandoned by their peers and a whole raft of damaging legislation would ensue.            

If you want your institutions to survive, learn the ideology and tactics of your adversary, teach that to your peers, organise politically, and raise a vast war chest to fight your case. Then use that to sell your ideas to society – for which, if as an elite community you want to be successful, you first need to earn the ability to ‘look the East Enders in the eye’.

Because, and you dare not doubt this, only when the bulk of parents in our country begin to demand for themselves the same rights to make decisions over the education of their children as are afforded to the parents of kids at top private schools, dare those schools risk a stand-up confrontation with South Africa’s lawmakers – let alone over an issue as hot as a global pandemic. Take it from people who do this stuff for a living; it is no game for amateurs or hotheads.

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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.