Middle class framings of marginalised anger: mistaking the moment for the movement.

COVID19 has precipitated the pent-up anger of the poor and marginalised (and in South Africa, this means Black) majority of the population regarding the dire, dismal state of our public basic education system. Principals, parents and teachers are showing signs and forms of solidarity the likes of which haven’t been seen for over twenty years. Movements are forming and growing in response to the untenable conditions of schools.

Most middle-class analysts, policy influencers and media stories are framing this as a knee-jerk, anxious and misinformed response to the pandemic itself. The rhetoric is that ‘the children are alright’, that the anxiety is based on ‘not understanding the science’ and that ‘life must go on’.

I’d argue this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on right now. Framed thus, the actions and cries of teachers, parents and principals are positioned as ‘irrational’ and ‘unreasonable’, thereby delegitimizing their concerns and voices.

We can draw on similar events in recent times to understand this misrepresentation of the issue at hand. The protests of students on campuses in 2015 was framed in response to a ‘statue’ when the initial demand came that Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at UCT be taken down. How could so much anger be just about a statue? But it wasn’t ‘just about a statue’, although the statue acted as a lightning rod. The statue was the moment that crystallized years and years of anger at being subjugated, silenced, unheard and unseen, despite trying to raise concerns and protests through legitimate channels and by ‘due process’. The same goes for narratives about the eruption of BLM protests in the United States at the death of George Floyd. Some have cast this as ‘why so much furore over the death of one man?’, failing to notice the centuries of discrimination by law enforcement against Black people, and how fundamental this system was to colonial efforts in the Americas, as well as slavery.

In each case, pressure had been building up for ages, much like it does when a volcano erupts. Volcanoes don’t just erupt: the eruption is the culmination of years—sometimes centuries—of pressure with nowhere to go. Cataclysmic as those eruptions are, it is a naïve and uninformed geological reading to think that the eruption is an isolated incident with no roots or history. Similarly, earthquakes don’t just ‘randomly happen’. They are the pressure release of sheering and subduction of massive tectonic plates. They are the explosion when contradictory forces reach breaking point.

So it is with COVID. Schools are not just protesting opening under COVID: it is merely, as others have said before, the last straw. Being forced to reopen under pandemic conditions has thrust to the surface deep anger and frustration at the abysmal conditions of the public schools that serve the vast majority. It has once again reminded the marginalised in this country that policymakers make policy for the wealthy, that system design and decisions think of wealthy schools when they decide what to do, the rest be damned. This has been the status quo for years, and people have tolerated it and tolerated it under duress. COVID is just poor public schools’ ‘statue moment’.

Failure to understand this, whether well-intentioned or wilful, is a gross mischaracterization of poor people’s anger. It is a subtle form of paternalism which indicates an inability to ascribe rationality or legitimacy to the voices of those who suffer these conditions daily, dismissing them as ‘overly anxious’ or ‘misinformed’. On the contrary, the misinformed voices are those who do not understand the inhumane conditions in our schools, or the Herculean efforts of those who work there to keep the home fire burning. Rather than silencing these voices, we must amplify them: they are the champions of public, quality education for all children, not just for the elite few. Resisting the disingenuous dismissal that ‘life must go on’, they are telling us that ‘life cannot go on like this’. And they are right.