by Nomalanga Mkhize

The silence of parents from ‘black’ townships over education in South Africa is striking.

Last week I was at the Grahamstown High Court talking to parents, teachers, pastors and school governing body members from schools in the Bethelsdorp, a formerly ‘coloured-only’ neighbour in Port Elizabeth. They were protesting teacher shortages in their schools.

There were about 30 of them who had taken time off work and travelled all the way to Grahamstown to make their ire known to Minister Motshekga and her department.

Inside the High Court, their lawyers were meeting Minister Motshekga’s legal team which was busy defending itself, once again, from court action compelling them to do their job properly. (These lawyers also represented us in the case we brought to compel Minister Motshekga to make sec. 100 intervention in the Eastern Cape work. She said it was working and our case was ‘ill-conceived’. The case was settled. For our part, we were pleased the Minister re-affirmed that she was in charge of Eastern Cape education. We know exactly where the buck stops now.)

The parents told me that in addition to teacher shortages, the temporary teachers they had in school employ were not being paid by the Department. The SGB was expected to pay for them!

In other words, not only was the department not providing the requisite number of staff according to the schools needs, but it was making the school pay for those they had managed to prevent from leaving. Teachers had lost their cars, were barely making ends meet because of the department had not paid them.

What struck me about the protest, and what has struck me in similar protests by citizens from formerly ‘coloured-only’ areas, is that that parents, pastors and community leaders led the protest – not the teachers and principals. (The group by no means only coloured, there were parents of all different backgrounds and languages, indeed, many ‘coloured’ schools are composed of at least 50% ‘black’ learners.)

In contrast, every protest that I have attended for schools in ‘black townships’, it is the teachers union SADTU leading, and the parents following behind.

In fact, if SADTU did not organise these protests against teacher shortages or whatever other grievance, onen wonders if parents in Black townships would ever make a collective showing on these critical issues.

Well, of course there have been cases where black parents organise and lead themselves to make their dissatisfaction on education matters heard . But this is very rare. (I refer specifically to the Eastern Cape here).

What is happening here? Parents in ‘coloured’ areas feel they can speak for themselves. Parents in ‘black’ areas do not.

I have spoken on various platforms about the class and power relations within black townships.

Parents in black townships tend to find themselves caught up in contradictory social and political relationships which cause them to be silent on education matters.

They may see themselves as being too poor to contest a school principal or teacher who is protected by a powerful union, specifically SADTU.

They may fear being seen to be a contrary voice in the community against people with strong political connections and ties, as many union heads have.

They may find themselves being ignored by education officials who are protected by the same union that protects teachers.

They may find themselves dealing with an SGB chair who is also a powerful political figure in the community, and by extension, powerfully connected to other elites such as teachers and principals.

In the ‘coloured’ townships however, power tends to be dispersed fairly evenly between different political parties and different teachers unions.

Churches in ex-‘coloured areas’ still occupy a powerful space in the politics of the community. Pastors are regularly involved in service delivery and socio-economic issues.

Clerical activism has become a thing of the past in black townships.

Should I say it? Yes, I think I will.

The political ‘in-betweenness’ of the coloured community since the end of apartheid is its most powerful advantage even though the discourse from disenchanted coloured citizens is that they are falling through the gap (the reality is, *all* working-class communities are falling through the gap; for every coloured community without services, we can find many ‘black’ ones without. That powerful coloured figures have been invisible in mainstream politics since the decline of the Mass Democratic Movement is however, a disquieting reality).

The ‘coloured’ community can make or break local governement and provincial elections in certain parts of the country, the DA and ANC know this well. There is a kind of power in
being part of ‘swing-vote’ community. Powerful unions cannot simply intimidate parents; principals still need buy-in from parents; pastors are still respected moral authorities entrusted to speak for citizens on community issues.

But black parents are not excused. Yes the unions, teachers, and other comrades in the community are powerful, but we are not excused.

End of Part 1




  1. for one thing black people (including the so-called “coloured”) must stand as the undivided 90% of the population. These issues are mainly issues of class- the brothers with a higher socio-economic background must be more assertive in leading. No unity . no nation.

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