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SAFTU condemns soaring school dropout rate, and state failure to give youth a decent life chance!

The South African Federations of Trade Unions (SAFTU) is gravely worried by the overwhelming number of learners who have dropped out of school since the start of the pandemic.

These levels of drop-outs – exposed by the National Income Dynamics Study – should make our country’s leaders in all sectors spend sleepless nights. There is a real danger – and for some, a hope! – that the coronavirus pandemic may take the country faster towards North Africa-type uprisings. Several leaders of uncaring states characterised by severe inequality and corruption fell, and other countries in Africa followed suit with the youth leading rebellions – such as the one we support in Eswatini still underway.

Here in South Africa, the ticking bomb of youth alienation is louder and faster.

SAFTU has been calling for more decisive action to arrest this situation. We have submitted our demands to NEDLAC and have a certificate to embark on a protected strike – one which we cannot yet exercise due to the coronavirus restrictions. In the recent period, we have called for an emergency trillion-rand relief package, so as to help ameliorate the devastating impact of Level Four restrictions. This must include the introduction of the Basic Income Grant at R50 a day per person, which is what is needed to live above the upper bund poverty line.

It is increasingly urgent to implement this BIG, without a means-test (which slows the process, adds corruption and stigmatises poor people) while clawing back the BIG payment through an emergency revenue strategy, whether a wealth tax or income tax, or Reserve Bank “Quantitative Easing” strategy (as occurred in April 2020 during a period of intense capital flight).

We obviously need to engage in strikes and protests – not the sort that Jacob Zuma has mobilised in KwaZulu-Natal the last two days but a more general call for social justice – because the ruling elites have pretended that they do not hear or see the

peoples’ suffering. Treasury is sticking to the instructions of the rating agencies, and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s imposition of austerity means a dramatic worsening of hunger, unemployment and social suffering.

The rising crisis of involuntary school leavers

According to the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS–CRAM), about 750 000 learners between the ages of 7-17 have dropped out of basic education over the 12 months between June 2020 and May 2021.

This number triples the number of dropouts under normal conditions, which is estimated at 230 000 per year. In general, we consider the long-standing drop-out problem to be an example of the state “culling” the student body before matriculation so as to artificially raise the pass rate.

But what we are seeing now is even more inexcusable: a horrendous waste of our young minds, who cannot cope with the terrible conditions caused by the economic lockdown strategy given the lack of welfare support including proper online learning facilities.

The correlation between the crisis created by Covid-19 and the increased number of drop-outs is stark and irrefutable. Covid-19 factors that cause learners to drop out include: fear of contracting Covid-19, especially at the initial phase of the virus (but also in recent days as it is clear the Delta variant is also felling our youth), confusion of attendance days due to the rotational system, safety concerns amongst walking clubs, and demoralisation associated with random closure of schools due to infections.

The “digital divide” has also worsened, thank to Eskom’s new “load reduction” strategy – targeting poor and working-class neighbourhoods with disconnections – starting in mid-2020. And not only were electricity connections vulnerable to Eskom’s rapid price increases and brutal collective-punishment approach, so too did cellphone and Big Data industries make record profits at the expense of the poor. Without effective digital devices to allow public school students access to e-learning, it is the wealthier private schools whose learners will continue amplifying the world’s worst inequality. The cellphone companies and data providers did very well during 2020 – and one reason was that they failed to make affordable data available to working class students, and

nor did the useless state regulator compel them to. We need a public-utility approach to data, or we will end up as working-class road kill on the information superhighway.

Other factors for non-attendance of school during Covid-19 are similar to reasons of non-attendance during normal times, albeit exacerbated under Covid-19. These factors are related to poverty, low household income and poor performance. Children are forced into informal-sector working life as a result of South African capitalism’s dismal failure to pay all our workers a living wage, sufficient for “social reproduction” of a family, hence more pressure on poor and working-class women – and now even girls – to make up for the economic system’s failure.

During Covid-19, the economic crisis that followed left in its wake a jobs bloodbath of 1.5 milion, a reduction of wages for many workers, and the loss of income for street traders’ households, as they were barred from operating for many months of 2020.

The reduction and sometimes complete loss of household income, either due to unemployment or loss of street trading market, meant that certain households could not afford transport fares to school for their children, when schools reopened in June 2020. And other households who lost their income could no longer afford the exorbitant tuition fees for their children in fee-paying schools.

Poor performance had been a serious problem in the country even before Covid-19, reflected amongst others in a 2016 University of Pretoria (UP) study that suggested 80% of Grade 4 learners in SA fall below the internationally recognised level of reading literacy in the language of learning and teaching. The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy in 2019 supported the UP when reporting that 4 out of every 10 Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language.

These overwhelming low levels of literacy contributed to a high rate of failure and poor performance in grades lower than Grade 12. Such poor performance was amongst others, a great contributor to the dropout in schools – contributing to over 10% of all drop outs.

Hence, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, levels of dropout were at record highs of 40 learners out of every 100 learners. But under Covid-19, the rotational system interrupted learning and contributed to a great loss of learning time, as learners only came to school 5 times in a 10 days cycle.

Rising levels of those “Not in any form of Education, Employment and Training” (NEETs)

Because of the problem of high rate of drop-outs in the basic education, the number of those who join the “working-age group” without employment is increasing at an alarming rate. In 2020 alone, 1 017 000 young people joined the working-age group.

Combined with those who are financially and academically excluded from the universities and colleges, the number of young people who are not in any form of employment, education and training has increased dramatically. As of the 1st quarter of 2021, the NEET group has increased to a record 8.8 million.

Unfortunately, reflective of the education problems of “drop-outs” in basic education and “exclusions” in higher education, less than 10% of the unemployed have any form of tertiary qualification. 52% (over 3.7 million) of the unemployed have no matric, and 38% (2.7 million) have basic matric.

Social crisis of the youth

What does this mean for the composition of our society, especially those who need access to some form of employment in the world’s most brutal form of capitalism? It means that 40 in every 100 young people drop out of the basic education system. They cannot reach universities. They are stuck in a cycle of unemployment. They have but limited means of survival.

High levels of crime trace their roots to this condition of political-economic crisis in this country. Although lockdown in 2020 did dramatically reduce the rate of violent crime, the March 2021 data – the most recent available – show much higher levels than in January. These crimes, as well as others such as burglaries and robberies (that may not be violent in nature) are a direct result of the alarmingly high number of those NEETs in this country.

The high levels of learner drop-out in schools and the exclusion of an overwhelming number of youth from institutions of higher learning, therefore, is not only disadvantaging them from qualifications that could increase their prospects of employability. It is also holding society back economically, plunging our society into

conditions of crime and violence, and compelling our youth to reach working age without the benefit of education.

If our society retains a perpetual state of backward beliefs and stereotypes regarding gender, sexual behaviour and race – the kind of ignorance that births dangerous bigotries – we have the ruling class to blame for this. Its failure to secure, for the whole society, the education every South African should have the right to, will generate a backlash that could make North Africa’s uprising a decade ago seem like a kindergarden in comparison.