Activists, students, academics, and gender and protection specialists from the United Nations gathered in an online forum to share ideas on the way forward as the effects of COVID-19 expose a widening gulf of inequality among many students and the communities in which they live.
The online joint special session of the University of Cape Town (UCT) Transformation Forum and University Social Responsiveness Committee, on 22 May 2020, reflected on COVID-19 in relation to race, class, gender and access to basic resources such as water, food, shelter and safety.
Describing the situation in local communities on the Cape Flats, postgraduate student in disability studies, and human rights activist with the Bishop Lavis Action Committee Abdul Karriem Matthews said the “much-promised” food parcels from government had not arrived. He said gang warfare in Bishop Lavis, where unemployment stands at 70%, was continuing and the voices of the community and the working class were not being heard.
“If people have a choice between buying a mask or a loaf of bread, they’ll buy the bread.”
He called for the academic programme from early childhood development to primary, high school and university level to be shut down with immediate effect for 2020 as the government could not give a guarantee of social distancing.
Matthews said it was too risky for children to go to school, as there were up to 40 or even 60 learners in a class and unemployed people in embattled areas could not afford to buy masks.
“If people have a choice between buying a mask or a loaf of bread, they’ll buy the bread. A mask comes way down in the list of human needs.”
Inequality in online learning
Activist Mocke J van Veuren of the C19 People’s Coalition called for a social pedagogy approach to higher education during COVID-19, which he said should be consultative, inclusive and sensitive to the contexts of students, teachers and their communities.
The C19 Post Education Working Group of the People’s Coalition is calling for a halt to the formal online curriculum roll-out; academic, financial and accommodation protection for students; as well as labour protection for teaching staff.
“There’s a massive divide between students who are able to cope with online learning and students in situations where learning is untenable. Going online immediately will simply widen existing inequalities and make meaningful learning impossible for the vast majority of students,” Van Veuren said in his presentation.
He called for a phased roll-out of a supportive and structured, but flexible, learning process and a return to campus-based teaching when it is deemed safe.
The harsh reality of poverty
UCT Students’ Representative Council (SRC) president, Akha Tutu, acknowledged that UCT had loaned laptops to many students and arranged free data, but that online learning raised some concerns.
“Not everyone will benefit from the loan of laptops and provision of data. For a student who lives in a shack with eight people 24 hours a day, a laptop won’t help because how and when are you going to work in that kind of situation?”
He said COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the reality of poverty and inequality. “This time of COVID-19 has proved even more glaringly that poverty is the biggest problem in South Africa.”
Residences seen as a safety net
He said the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of residences at universities. He welcomed UCT’s plans for a phased return of vulnerable students currently living in shacks and deep rural areas.
“Students when they are at res, are in a safety net. They’re in a good space in terms of being taken care of. They are in a comfortable space, a safe place where they can get food and a quiet place to learn.”
He said the SRC was maintaining contact with UCT management during COVID-19.
“Our primary role is to make sure we are in contact with the university management so that we are a conduit for students. We want to make sure that complaints and concerns from students reach management’s ears. We disagree with management where we see fit and bring alternative ways of doing things. We want to ensure that students are not left behind in any way.”
Bearing the brunt of COVID-19
Sketching an overall picture of COVID-19 in South Africa, Matthew du Plessis, a senior legal officer in the Western Cape office of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said the effect of the lockdown on a country such as South Africa was disproportionate in relation to other countries around the world.
“Whenever a sacrifice is made, it affects us more in African countries. We will bear the brunt a lot harder. That is why transformation and inequality are so important to focus on.”
Du Plessis focused most of his address on the increasing number of complaints about heavy-handed treatment by some members of the South African National Defence Force and police during the lockdown. He said a SAHRC poll had shown that trust in the military had decreased since soldiers had been deployed to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, and citizens could register complaints of mistreatment through the SAHRC website and offices in various provinces.
Justine van Rooyen, gender advisor to the World Food Programme (WFP), said the WFP had focused on mobilising resources to provide food assistance to around 100 million people worldwide in 2020, but that an additional 130 million people risked slipping into hunger this year due to COVID-19. The WFP was increasing its efforts to provide food to needy people around the world. Van Rooyen also raised alarm bells about the potential increase in gender-based violence (GBV) during this time. She said a call centre, Lifeline, had reported that calls about GBV had increased by 500% since the lockdown in South Africa.
“Restriction of movement, a reduction in community interaction and closure of businesses and services are not only increasing GBV-related risks and violence against women and girls, but also limiting the ability of survivors to distance themselves from their abusers and access external support.”
Van Rooyen said previous coping mechanisms, such as retreating to a neighbour or family member, were often no longer viable options for women.
UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, Professor Loretta Feris, welcomed the views of all the panelists, as well as questions and comments on the online forum.
“It is important that we as executives remain open to people providing suggestions and possible solutions,” said Feris.
She spoke of the current situation where UCT had to come up with new ways of teaching and learning.
“We need to work together on solutions.”
“We are very aware that online learning is an imperfect solution in what is an immensely challenging time during COVID-19. It is like trying to fix a vessel while we are in a storm on the ocean.”
Ferris said UCT was doing its best in a tough situation and called on people to work together to carve a way forward.
“We are aware of the deepening inequities in the system while trying to address a way of learning to see students through COVID-19. We need to work together on solutions.”
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