As government beats about the bush, poor pupils die in unsafe schools

The precious life of a seven year-old pupil of Thembelihle Junior Secondary School, in Baziya, near Mthata in Eastern Cape, ended tragically on Wednesday morning.

The precious life of a seven year-old pupil of Thembelihle Junior Secondary School, in Baziya, near Mthata in Eastern Cape, ended tragically on Wednesday morning.

The girl was killed when the classroom in which she was being taught collapsed. Several other children were injured.

The mud structure that serves as a school for this poor rural community had become unstable after heavy rains.

The governing body of the makeshift school described the structure as unsuitable for occupation and blamed the government for dragging its feet in building a proper school for the community.

The child's death is a tragic example of how the poor are trapped in a vicious cycle in which they are vulnerable to man-made disasters, such as the one that occurred at Thembelihle Junior Secondary School, simply because they are poor.

If these pupils were from a rich area their school would have been well-equipped and safe.

But because they live in an economically depressed area the community cannot afford to raise funds to improve their school.

As a result, the community depends on the government for infrastructure. By providing the infrastructure and resources the government would be fulfilling its mandate of making education accessible to all.

Unfortunately there are still many Thembelihles out there, and the stock response has been that the government lacks the capacity to provide the necessary support as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

For the public, and especially the family of the pupil who was killed, the question will remain: what is it that makes it so difficult for the government to allocate money to build schools in rural areas and to get construction companies to build the schools?

This question becomes even more pertinent given the move by Education Minister Naledi Pandor to introduce her no-fee schools plan.

This is a major victory for the poor. It means that they will be living the spirit of our constitution, which gives everyone the right to education.

However, without proper schools, this could turn into a pyrrhic victory as more poor children are killed by collapsing mud classrooms.

This calls for serious prioritisation on the part of the government when it comes to the building of schools.

This child's death also brings into question the issue of corporate social responsibility and how companies dispense their funds when supporting community projects.

The unfortunate tendency has been for companies to get involved in corporate social investment initiatives only to serve their own interests. This has led to companies overlooking communities that really need their support simply because they do not fit into the corporate social investment plan.

What needs to happen is that the government, companies and communities should work together to identify priority needs and then allocate the necessary funds to them.

This calls for partnerships that will benefit the poor while addressing the government's and the private sector's commitment to the general upliftment of previously disadvantaged communities.

The initiative by the Gauteng Department of Social Services to engage the private sector in discussing corporate social investment should be commended.

It is to be hoped that effective strategies on how to fight underdevelopment and the scourge of poverty will arise out of these discussions.

Such strategies will, I hope, bring to an end unnecessary deaths in poor communities - such as the death of the pupil at Thembelihle.