It's been a long time since my first day of school yet some of the problems remain

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Grades 8 classes at Eqinisweni Secondary School in Tembisa are overcrowded with as many as 93 pupils in each class. Construction of new classrooms has ground to a halt.
Grades 8 classes at Eqinisweni Secondary School in Tembisa are overcrowded with as many as 93 pupils in each class. Construction of new classrooms has ground to a halt.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

When I saw my niece's son all decked out in his school uniform, on his way to enter first grade at a local school, a lump rose to my throat and a suspicion of a tear crept to the corner of my left eye.

How beautiful and innocent he looked, his jaw set in determination as he raised his head high as if saying, "future, here I come".

The sight of him, and hundreds of other children of his age I was to see during the course of the day as some were being cajoled into cars against their will, others laughing and clapping hands and saying, "mummy, let's go already!" brought memories of my first day at school.

Ah, that was more than four decades ago. But it still feels like yesterday. I can still smell my mother's vanilla essence-flavoured vetkoeks that I carried to school on my first day. I can still feel the texture of Vaseline Blue Seal, slathered in thick layers on my face and legs.

I recall being shocked that most of the kids in my grade were not wearing shoes. For the first two weeks I was to become a butt of jokes among the kids - for wearing shoes.

After which I decided I was not going to wear shoes, even though I had three pairs, two of them for church and "going away" trips, and one for school.

What I recall was that for the first year, us children in sub-standard A (or first grade) shared a classroom with those in sub-standard B (or second grade).

Us first-graders faced one direction, while the second- graders sat behind us, but facing the other direction. Then lessons would begin.

Sometimes as a first-grader your ear would be so fascinated by the second-grade teacher reading to her class: "amadada aduda edamini. Yithini, d, d, d!"

This was more interesting than what your own grade-one teacher was saying: "a, e, i, o, u", over and over again. Aaah, teacher, I want to go to grade two already!

For the longest of times, I used to think that is what school was supposed to be: that first and second graders had to be taught together. That is until I went to other better-resourced schools, where there were more classrooms, more teachers.

Now, years later, as a parent and a grandparent, I have been humbled by what I have seen at private schools. Parents at these schools blow the gasket if there are more than 15 pupils in one class. "Overcrowding!" they cry.

This sounds funny to me because for a large chunk of my schooling years, it was not uncommon to have 70 children squashed in one class. I am distressed that the situation has not changed at some schools, as I noticed when I made flying visits to some schools this week, just out of curiosity.

Some children are squashed 65 into one classroom. Others, of course, still take their lessons from under trees. Last year, we learned of children drowning in pit latrines at school. In this day and age.

As we enter this year, our politicians gearing up for the upcoming elections, one can't help reminding our government and the opposition parties to put flesh to the old promises they've been making over the years, that they are committed to improving the lot of the masses, especially in the education sector.

A well-managed education system can go a long way towards transforming the country socially, politically and economically.

When you educate your citizenry, you erode dependency on the state for employment, housing and other resources. Educated and skilled people take initiative and create jobs for themselves and others. A country with a high employment rate also tends to have a correspondingly decreased crime rate.

A no-brainer, really. Now the politicians must act.

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