Education certainly ranks as one of the most contentious political topics in contemporary South African discourse. We not only have one of the worst education systems in the world, but education is so politicized that it is difficult to have a serious discussion about the topic in the first place without someone being deeply triggered.
The recent controversy at St John’s College in Johannesburg is the most recent manifestation of this.
To cut a long story short: A geography teacher made racist remarks directed at some of the pupils in his classroom. Whether this happened over an extended period of time or not is unclear; however, late last month this burst onto the public scene.
The teacher was investigated by St John’s, which found him guilty and demoted him, and gave him a final warning. This was not enough to satiate public outrage, and the Private Education Terminator, Panyaza Lesufi, was called in. After having a discussion with school management, God-King Lesufi declared that he was disappointed, irritated, and felt that he was being undermined by the school. According to him, St John’s was defending racism, and set a deadline that the teacher be fired later that same day… or else.
The teacher quickly resigned before Lesufi’s deadline.
Setting the scene: Yes, the teacher should have been disciplined
Before the obligatory accusations of bigotry come flying my way, let me be clear about my opinion about authoritarianism in schools.
As a libertarian I am often grouped with ‘conservatives’, which is unfortunately part of the baggage our movement gets from its American associates. When it comes to schooling, I am certainly anything but ‘conservative’.
I labored through twelve years of primary and secondary education, hating every waking second of it.
The very institution of school, to me, seems to beget conflict. If you are a minute late to school, there is conflict. If you want to go to the bathroom at an inconvenient time for the teacher, there is conflict. If you are unable to do the petty homework assigned to you because you had other, more important tasks to attend to, there is conflict. If you aren’t clean-shaven or your earrings are ‘too large,’ there is conflict. If you decide to go home early, knowing that your final period teacher is absent and your class is expected to simply ‘wait out’ the last hour of school under supervision, there is conflict.
Of course, the education system calls this discipline, when, in fact, it is simply petty conflict in a deeply and unnecessarily-authoritarian environment. School sucks, and the paradigm according to which schools operate, must fundamentally change for it to be considered a proper part of the liberal Western civilization founded on reason and freedom.
In that light, do I feel sympathy toward the geography teacher who was fired? No; none at all.
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He was complicit in a system that makes school attendance compulsory, meaning that each and every pupil in his class had absolutely no choice but to be there. This, in turn, means that the pupils have to endure whatever he decides they have to endure, including his classless racist ‘jokes.’ I would have felt more sympathy for him if pupils were allowed, like customers in every other sector of society, to simply stand up, leave his classroom, and go home. But they couldn’t, and he knew this.
Public vs private: Panyaza Lesufi should mind his own business
But my opinion that St John’s College should have taken action against the teacher is not a policy statement. It is my opinion, and had I been a parent, it is the course of action I would have demanded, in addition to demanding various other reforms which would give my child the freedom to escape the environment which he by law must submit to.
Policy is a different beast, however, and in policy, the key question is whether the school is a public, taxpayer-funded school, or a private, voluntarily-funded school.
If the school is taxpayer-funded, my opinion is scripture. Why? Because at the end of every month when my paycheck is processed, and every time I purchase something, that school gets my money without me having a choice in the matter. And, because I believe firmly in the adage that he who pays, says, if St John’s were a public school, whatever I demand must, rightly, happen. How this is to be squared with the wishes of other taxpayers is not my concern, since I don’t endorse the system of public schooling. If this principle means public schools are impossible to run, then I stand firmly and happily by it.
But if the school is private, and funded entirely, without subsidy, by the customers of that school, my opinion is devoid of any consequence. Because I don’t pay, I don’t get to say. I may condemn something the school does, but my words and deeds do not carry with them an intrinsic force which must properly be complied with. The school can do as it pleases, insofar it does not violate the inalienable right of the parents and children to opt out of the school if they wish to do so.
Panyaza Lesufi, who is Gauteng’s Member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Education, has been on a personal crusade against private primary and secondary education, just like his colleague Blade Nzimande in national government has been on a crusade against private tertiary education, for years. It is as if these two individuals live in a different South Africa than the rest of us; a South Africa where education is so great that we actually have the luxury of squabbling over their ideological preferences.
This crusade is largely unconstitutional and violates the Rule of Law. The Constitution gives everyone the right to create their own educational institutions, including schools, universities, and their curricula. The only constitutional regulation of those institutions is they may not discriminate based on race, and their standards must be equal to or superior to that of public institutions. The third ‘requirement’ is that the institution must be registered with the State, but it is reasonable to say that the State is obliged to register the institution if it adheres to the other two requirements. The Rule of Law, on the other hand, demands that all government conduct be reasonable, i.e. not arbitrary.
St John’s, Lesufi, and the Rule of Law
Lesufi said he felt disappointed, irritated, and undermined by St John’s response to the matter, and demanded that the school, on that very same day, do what he commanded, or else.
The Rule of Law is often distinguished from the ‘rule of man’, which means that the passions and opinions of our rulers are what govern our day to day lives. The Rule of Law demands that law, which is regular and largely fixed, informed by steadfast legal principles, govern.
All government conduct must be rational, meaning that the intervention must be connected with a legitimate government purpose (those enumerated functions in the Constitution), must be reasonable, meaning that there must be evidence-based, non-ideological, legal justification for the intervention, must be proportional, meaning that the intervention solves the mischief and does no more, and must be effective, meaning the intervention must actually be reasonably capable of achieving its stated end.
St John’s, being a private school, instituted its own disciplinary process against the teacher. It punished that teacher by demoting him, cutting his salary, and giving him a final warning, meaning that any new violations will result in his immediate dismissal. Then Panyaza Lesufi rode in on his high horse, deemed the process to be disappointing and irritating, and that it apparently undermined him as the God-King of Education in Gauteng, and declared it essentially null and void. He replaced it, on the spot, without due process, with his own preference for how the situation should have been resolved. In other words, he acted arbitrarily, and his conduct was informed solely by his passions and ideology, rather than the age-old principles of the Rule of Law.
Of course, my detractors might claim that St John’s was under no obligation to comply with Lesufi’s commands, and could have violated his deadline and taken whatever legal course followed.
While this is true in a Rule of Law-respecting society, in South Africa, this is dangerous and suicidal for any private school. As the MEC for Education, Lesufi is the monarch of the fiefdom of education regulation in Gauteng. ‘Disappointing’, ‘irritating’, and ‘undermining’ him is like disappointing, irritating, and undermining the father-figure in a deeply conservative household; you are going to lose that battle.
Other than taking St John’s to court, knowing that our courts do not shy away from intervention in the affairs of private schools and thereby setting a dangerous precedent, Lesufi could simply have engaged in regulatory bullying. Need your teachers certified? Nope. Need your course certifications renewed? Not today. Want to engage in activities with public schools in Gauteng? Better luck next time.
Getting on your regulatory master’s bad side in a society like South Africa’s is the death-knell of any private institution. In America, this is not the case, because the extent of government’s control over what happens privately is not nearly as deep as it is here. There, companies can openly criticize regulators and politicians, knowing that their property and interests do not depend on their goodwill with the political class. This has never been the case in South Africa; certainly not under Apartheid, and certainly not now.
Clarity of thought is extremely important when it comes to education in South Africa.
Professor Sarah Nuttall, who is evidently an ideologue for social justice, is certainly not part of the rational and clear discourse needed in matters of education. She and people like her seek only to fuel the outrage culture which will lead to further arbitrariness, and consequently further unnecessary caution among entrepreneurs who wish to establish private educational institutions, and finally, the ultimate destruction of primary and secondary education in South Africa for everyone.
If it is still unclear that our last hope resides with private innovation and enterprise, as it evidently is to Nuttall, it might be time to fundamentally reassess our trust in the institution of government.