It is early in the morning and 15-year old Jacob Dingane walks quickly down a slum alley in South Africa with his bag slung across his shoulder. He looks around for his friends and meets up with two or three of them as they make their way through the peripheral of Port Elizabeth. They arrive and head inside, talking together and wondering what they will do today. But Jacob is not at school. No, he carries a bag filled with tik-tik (methamphetamine) and walks with his friends to bring the tik-tik from a supplier to the gang leader of “The Dixie Kids”, of which Jacob is a part. In the Eastern Cape, Jacob’s province and one of the poorest in South Africa, gangs and drug trafficking are a popular way to form camaraderie and generate income. Unfortunately, Jacob is just one of many young boys who are making a similar route in the early hours of the South African morning.
And what are Jacob’s other options? Public school, where teachers have an average absenteeism rate of 19 days per school term, many students go to school hungry or sick, and poverty forces students to do homework before sundown arrives, does little for their educational development. Private school, while offering a higher quality education, is not affordable to 25% of the South African population, especially the unemployed or impoverished. As a result, young people like Jacob see gang activity and drug trafficking as the best option for their survival. In a country where blacks make up 80% of the population yet less than 1 in 20 black students end up with post-high school qualification (compared to 1 in 2 white students), it is no wonder that these young black males choose this alternative.
However, it has been proven that education is a deterrent of violence. If South African children are out of the streets and in school, crime and gang activity will be mitigated. The U.S., top arms supplier in the world, is unfortunately ignoring this fact. 2/3 of all small weapons go to developing countries, and most are for private organizations such as gangs. In fact, we are encouraging Jacob’s behavior. Increased restriction on these sales would indirectly support South African educational initiatives by ensuring that gangs do not gain foreign support. In this way, we too may have a role in improving the education of these South African children.
South Africa itself has already taken the first step. During apartheid in South Africa, non-whites were explicitly barred from attending school. Now, the right to education enshrined in South Africa’s constitution provides access to school for all children and most especially, previously marginalized blacks. In fact, the South African budget dedicates 20% of its funds towards education, giving the nation one of the highest rates of public education investment in the world. Yet despite the large sums of money, students are not in school. In breaking down the barrier of access, another is realized: the low quality of public education and the alternative option of gang involvement are pushing students out of schools despite their right to education.
The goal of providing access to education for all is a bold and an important one. However, the effort cannot stop at the right to education. If a child deserves access to education, then they deserve access to a quality education that will achieve its purposes: to prepare children for citizenship, to teach cultural literacy, to cultivate a skilled workforce, to help students become critical thinkers and to equip students with tools to compete in a global market. Without quality schools, these goals cannot be achieved. Furthermore, South Africa children are evidence that no student will attend a school, even if it is free, that does not fulfill these goals of education.
Jacob has two pathways: one offers him immediate survival at the cost of drug usage and violence within gangs; the other pathway offers him a quality education that could lead to a career and the fulfillment of his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, the second path is not yet available and Jacob’s path is not only decided by his desire to be educated. It is time that we take responsibility for ensuring that Jacob can choose the second path.