ANC rep in showdown
Christian Martin and at least 40 other furious parents in Port Elizabeth spent the week sleeping on the floor of the district education offices in protest against a severe teacher shortage in the northern areas. The 47-year-old ANC provincial legislature member is set for a showdown with his own party after the Eastern Cape education department sent him a letter ordering him and the other parents to leave the building or be dragged to court.
In a letter sent to him and the other “unauthorised occupants of the Ethel Valentine Building” on Wednesday, Martin was told to “vacate the hall with immediate effect, failing which an urgent eviction order will be obtained to have you removed ... from the Port Elizabeth district office”.
But Martin and the parents refuse to budge because the teacher crisis has not been solved.
Three weeks ago, Martin laid charges of intimidation against the provincial education department at the Gelvandale Police Station after angry parents belonging to the Northern Areas Education Forum forced the closure of 56 schools in the neighbourhood from the beginning of the academic year.
Martin has also laid a complaint against the department with the Human Rights Commission for violating the rights of the area’s children, who are battling to learn amid a severe teacher shortage that has been dragging on without resolution for five years.
Ironically, perhaps, Martin, who hails from the suburb of Arcadia, prefers a more diplomatic approach, whereby children are allowed to go back to class while parents deal with the department and take to the streets.
“A child at school – even if there is one teacher – is better than a child at home doing nothing or, worse, in jail. We are creating more dropouts and gangsters by saying our children must not attend school,” he said.
For Martin, the struggle is intensely personal. His 18-year-old son, Christian Martin junior, attended Bethelsdorp Comprehensive School and wanted to become a mechanical engineer. But frequent school stoppages and protests meant that he failed to obtain the marks he needed to study further. He is now undergoing a bridging course and wants to go to Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and follow his dream to become the first engineer in his family.
Martin’s struggle is also political, fuelled, he said, by his conviction as a Khoisan activist, which drives him to continue his campaign.
“During colonial times and apartheid, the Khoi people were made to be farm workers and were deprived of education,” he said. “It’s important for me to fight for the descendents of the Khoi people to get education, and to partake in the economy of this country and in other spheres ... because if you look at the people who are the most imprisoned today due to no education, it’s the coloured people.”
Coloured people, he insisted, were the least represented in universities or technical and vocational training colleges. His campaign appears to be having some effect. This week, there have been some positive developments, with the department pledging to hire more teachers and dealing with education problems in the area.
Provincial Education MEC Mandla Makupula said the department had issued 45 appointment letters for teachers in the Port Elizabeth district, and 53 for the Uitenhage district. Verification of other applications were still ongoing, with further appointments of “qualifying educators expected”, he said.
Those figures, however, are for the whole of Nelson Mandela Bay metro and the department did not respond to requests for information regarding how many teachers were needed in the northern areas. Martin, however, said that the schools needed 162 teachers and only 32 had been appointed so far.
Martin took City Press to Die Heuwel Primary School, which he attended as a child. The school was deserted and its gates were bolted shut with large padlocks.
“My aim is just to get the education department to do something about principals and teachers preventing pupils from going to school. That’s why I went the Human Rights Commission route,” he said.
Martin, the chairperson of the social development portfolio committee in the Eastern Cape provincial legislature, said as a “disciplined cadre of the movement” he was “duty-bound to protect the rights of pupils to free and quality education”.
“After many meetings were fruitless, I decided I was going to open a case against the department for its inaction to reopen the schools and deal with their officials, and so forth,” he said.
The matter will be heard in the Eastern Cape High Court in Port Elizabeth as soon as a date can be set.
Christian Martin, ANC member of the provincial legislature, and dozens of angry parents in Port Elizabeth have been threatened with court action