I’ll preface this post by admitting that I know very little about government revenue collection and distribution in South Africa. Yet I cannot grasp or reconcile the stark lack of resources in the K-12 school that Mtuseni graduated from, and which his little brother and sister now attend.
In past discussions with Mtuseni I’ve learned that the school has no library. How can a school serving thirteen grades not have a library? It also has no computers. I ran the computer lab at a Boston K-5 school in the 1980s. It quickly became clear what a useful tool computers can be to facilitate learning — and this was in the Dark Ages of floppy disks, dot-matrix printers and no Internet! Providing students, especially those in the higher grades, with some access to computers should be a no-brainer these days.
But the kicker was a couple weeks ago, in the midst of a chain of health-issues in Mtuseni’s family. His brother Musa, a first-grader, was taking medication for pneumonia. It’s winter there now, and Mtuseni was worried about Musa going back to school because “it’s near the river and very cold.” When I asked why it’s cold, he said “the school has no heat.”
This is a public school. A lack of library books or computers is one thing. But no heat? How can you learn in an unheated classroom when the temperature has dipped below freezing the night before? Many of these children have no heat at home; six hours a day in a warm classroom can make school a happy, comfortable place that promotes learning.
Hundreds of children from several communities attend this school. Many of the parents are poor, but they participate in the economy. They purchase goods and services subject to the 14 percent Value-Added Tax. Where does this revenue go? People paying that level of VAT out of meager incomes should receive some core services — like heat in their children’s schools.
I’m not saying that every public school in the United States is tricked out with the best resources and technology. Wealthier communities have better schools than poor communities. But the US system is set up so that tax revenue collected from more affluent cities, towns and states is distributed back to poorer communities and states in the form of government-funded services and support. High-income taxpayers get back less than they pay out, but this helps to decrease wide disparities in areas like education. And where government can’t address every school challenge, private companies often fill in the gaps by sponsoring libraries, computer labs, athletic fields and other programs.
I understand it’s Africa, a land of many contradictions and inequities. But South Africa is the wealthiest country on the continent. Education lifts people out of poverty and expands their opportunities and capacity for contributing to the economy. Public education should be the backbone of a nation, setting a strong course for the future. How can a public school less than 15 miles from the shiny corporate headquarters, posh malls and luxury car dealerships in Sandton not have heat? Or a library? Or computers?
My experience with Mtuseni has been a nonstop learning process for me on so many levels. But sometimes, I just don’t understand.
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