Zille’s New Education Bill may further impact poor Western Cape communities

BEACON OF HOPE: Beacon Valley High School in Mitchells Plain is planning a fund-raising day in order to buy computers and books for its library to ensure that the pupils have a better future.

Substance abuse, alcohol and drugs in particular, continue to ravage our communities. The Western Cape Education MEC, Debbie Schafer, will soon be tabling a bill that will allow for the sale and consumption of alcohol on school premises in the Western Cape.

This goes against the work of her colleague, social development MEC, Albert Fritz, who has substance abuse as one of the “five key areas” of his department. In his 2018 social development budget, Fritz indicated that more the thirty-five thousand clients made use of the substance abuse services offered by the department. These exclude private facilities in the province. 

In tackling substance abuse, of which alcohol abuse plays a major factor, his department set aside over R200 million; half of which is spent on interventions with young people. Fritz went on to point out that his department is particularly focussed on “treating young people, in order to address the rising tide of youth alcohol and drug usage.”

More troubling, it would seem that the Democratic Alliance provincial government departments operate in silos. If MEC Schafer had spoken to MEC Fritz, he would have told her what he told the audience at The Sultan Bahu Centre in Mitchell’s Plain in February 2011 already when he addressed the scourge of substance abuse in the Western Cape. 

At Sultan Bahu, MEC Fritz pointed out that the Western Cape has “the highest rate of drug and alcohol related harms in the country.” At the time, the then still open GF Jooste Hospital treated up to 300 patients per month for substance related trauma. Today Jooste remains closed, no replacement has been put in place and yet the MEC for education wants to sell and consume alcohol at school.  

At the same time, it does not seem that MEC Shaffer nor her department took note of the Western Cape Provincial Cabinet Alcohol related harms reduction White Paper released last year. The report indicates the “comparatively high amounts of alcohol” consumed by South Africans and the subsequent risky patterns of behaviour that accompany this abuse of substance.

For those living on the Cape Flats and in our townships we know all too well the crime, violence against women and children as well as risky sexual behaviour that accompanies being intoxicated. In fact, often drug and alcohol abuse go together.

The White Paper, released by this very provincial government of which Schafer is a MEC, states that “alcohol was identified as the fifth leading risk factor for death and disability in South Africa that contributes substantially to the top 10 risk factors. Alcohol-related harms include brain development impairment in children and adolescents, is linked to increased violence, transport-related deaths and suicide.”

The White paper goes on to mention the research done into just how bad alcohol abuse is in our province. More than a third of Western Cape learners in Grades eight to eleven were found to be binge drinkers; this more than in any other province. Up to a quarter of children in grade one in certain high risk areas were found to have displayed symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. 

More than half of injury related deaths, fifty-four percent, in South Africa involved a person with a positive blood concentration of alcohol and the average was double the legal limit. Sixty-one percent of violent fatalities were linked to high levels of alcohol while fifty-six percent of transport related deaths involved high levels of alcohol. 

It goes on to note the huge financial strains that the abuse of alcohol puts on the fiscus with a total loss of ten percent of GDP or up to R236 billion; these figures being from a decade ago. One can only imagine that the situation is even more dire today. Even more so, the high levels of abuse are specifically linked to “school-going youth”. 

The white paper goes on to propose “establishing early screening and referral services at schools”. It also suggests “awareness interventions and leveraging the after-school space for education and awareness targeted at youth.” Yet how does one justify, on the one hand, trying to fight alcohol abuse, in our schools in particular, and, on the other hand, selling and consuming alcohol in our schools. 

MEC Schafer, according to the ‘Cape Times’ of 7 July 2017, is reported to have said that “…high figures of abuse exist despite the fact that alcohol consumption at schools is currently not allowed this has clearly not stopped the abuse”. While this may be the case, does it mean one should allow the abuse and consequences to increase even further? or because crime happens regardless of laws and legal frameworks one just should accept it since it would happen anyway? 

The legalising of sale and consumption of alcohol schools also raises questions given its potential to make profits rather than ensuring the welfare of disadvantaged young people and the community as a whole. The emphasis on profits and money was further evident in the same ‘Cape Times’ report that suggests, ‘ in the current economic landscape schools are finding it very difficult to raise additional funds to supplement the school’s income. The consequence of the current legislation is that schools cannot have school functions where alcohol is involved such as wine auctions, picnics, staff functions at the end of the year, beer gardens at the annual fete, car shows, food and wine festivals, cheese and wine evenings and potjiekos competitions.”

Failing to prioritise the needs of communities and children will translate into former systems of oppression that kept people and communities enslaved to alcohol abuse with the goal of making profits. The Education Bill and the sale and consumption of alcohol on school grounds has the potential to have a devastating consequences for children and communities. Given that poor communities and its children live in a permanent state of vulnerability, the safekeeping and alleviation of their vulnerability should be the only priority. It reminds one of the ‘tot-system’, for even then the goal was to keep people and communities enslaved in alcohol abuse so that profits can be made. 

Maurencia Gillion is the Provincial Treasure of the ANC in the Western Cape and a ANC MPL in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature.