Last month Premier Zille’s tweets caused yet another outrage across the social networking world. Many took umbrage with her reference to education refugees from the Eastern Cape who have flooded schools in the Western Cape running away from the dismal quality of education.
I did not follow the furore as closely as I should have as I was recovering from my first term of teaching, in the Western Cape. I decided to spend some of my school holiday (at home) in East London and Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape. Conversations inevitably led to the Premier’s tweet and her defence and justification for using the word refugee. I was moved by the extent of outrage amongst friends and I found myself taking umbrage with all the talk about education and refugees in a democratic country such as South Africa.
Premier Zille’s defence was in the attempt of reclaiming the word refugee for herself and how she understands it in the context of the chaotic education system in South Africa where people are voting with their feet and leaving the Eastern Cape for greener pastures in other provinces. As a teacher and someone from the Eastern Cape, I empathise with those who have had to relocate because their basic right to education in the Eastern Cape is being flagrantly disregarded. I have been asked numerous times why I did not stay in the Eastern Cape and teach in schools where there is the most need.
My reasoning has always been about the practicalities of teaching: the Western Cape Department of Education issued several vacancy lists for teaching posts whereas in the Eastern Cape there were none. Friends who decided to stay in the Eastern Cape and teach have still not been paid their first salary. These conditions amongst many others made it easy for me to consider a teaching post in the Western Cape where I have been paid regularly since January. But above all, I made the choice to move to the Western Cape. As a citizen of this country, the right of movement is one that I value as an individual.
The discourse of displacement and education refugees makes me uncomfortable considering that all citizens have the freedom of movement in this country. I doubt that yuppies would be dubbed as employment refugees when they move to the Western Cape for better employment opportunities (as is the case with many friends who decide to become lawyers and accountants and remain in the Western Cape after they have graduated from local universities). I doubt middle-class learners who move to the Western Cape (and attend private schools and expensive public schools) form part of the group of education refugees. It seems that education refugees refers to learners from poor, working class and marginalised communities. This implies that the freedom of movement is taken for granted for people who have the social capital to move, but those who are poor and in most need, it is problematised.
As a woman whose legacy is about forced removals and carrying the dompas as my grandmother did during apartheid, the freedom of movement and the choice to be able to move where I want to move is one I do not take for granted. It seems bizarre that the freedom to basic education can affect the freedom of movement as we have seen happen in the Eastern Cape. As a teacher who is well aware of the travesty that is taking place in the education system, I wish more people would be enraged by the state of education in the Eastern Cape (and all poor people in this country) rather than deconstructing Premier Zille’s misuse or disuse of the word refugee.
(also appears on feministssa.com)