By Melusi Ncala
First published in The Herald

The phrase “politics of the stomach” is familiar in political discussions in South Africa. The term is spoken among people seeking to strike deals or as justification for the forging of political relationships which inevitably lead to chasms between factions. When the words are heard, the mind fills with images of a network of shrewd, wily individuals working toward a common goal that is not for the whole, but for personal needs and interests.

Taking a more sinister view, “politics of the stomach” also symbolises shenanigans that result not only in self-enrichment, but lead to the treacherous terrain of criminality and other corrupt activities which have a negative impact on the country’s future. From this perspective, the mantra becomes more than just a phrase about allies who have sold out to the highest bidder. Now it is treachery of the worst kind for it exposes those sell-outs who lack principles and morals — traitors often entrusted with power by a people who have toiled for many generations to be free and to be recognised as humans.

Sadly, this notion applies not only to high level politics in contemporary South Africa, but it’s also synonymous with the management and governance of our schools — and the effects are devastating.

This is not by chance because schools are microcosms of our society. In our context they mirror our abject poverty, the gross violence, the existing social divisions based on, among others, gender, race and class, and all the associated attitudes and behaviours.

This manifestation of greed, sleaziness and thievery may guarantee a quick buck for a holiday, or a new car, or renovations to a house to a select few corrupt individuals, but it is a heavy price to pay for a child who goes to bed without a meal and learning resources and, above all, whose mind is preoccupied by sordid pictures of a teacher soliciting sexual favours for marks. It shatters the dreams, hopes and aspirations of families who have bought into the ideal that knowledge is power and to obtain this knowledge is to devote yourself to the educational process.

Then we philosophically ponder why our communities are in such a calamitous state? Well, this need not be a question that we crack our heads over.

Part of the answer confronts us daily, especially those who work in Corruption Watch engaging with people from all over the country. To date we have read and listened to almost 2 300 testimonies of teachers, principals, pupils, parents, care-givers and concerned citizens who have blown the whistle on corruption in South African schools, and this is merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The accounts spectacularly depict how, in what should be safe havens for children, those with sticky fingers turn schools into money-spinners for miniature criminal operations — thus placing pupils’ lives at risk.

No part of the country is exempt, and the details are astonishing. Looking at the Eastern Cape, for instance, we have learnt how some school officials have total disregard for financial processes and the management of resources, resulting in school bank accounts being wiped clean and resources being depleted. It is unfathomable to think that when blank cheques are signed, or when budgeting procedures are handled clumsily, or when no financial reports exist to account for school finances, at the core of this abuse of power and pillaging of resources are senior persons of the school community — principals and school governing body members. The 42% of reports in the province highlighting the embezzlement of funds and theft of resources, and the additional 16% of reports alleging mismanagement of funds, strongly suggests that these factors are in part responsible for the challenges ailing the nutrition programmes that cater for approximately nine million schoolchildren, the failure to provide books, stationery and furniture, as well as the poor maintenance of school grounds.

The callous and reckless behaviour of perpetrators, encapsulated in the detail of our reports, leaves heads shaking in disgust. To think that impoverished families had to scramble for meagre amounts just so that their children could survive another day in school where principals were threatening to dismiss them should they not pay up.

Another troubling statistic relates to the flouting of employment processes. At least 13% of Corruption Watch’s schools reports relate to irregularities in this regard. Reporters claim that officials managing recruitment processes in some schools make nepotistic appointments and, unsurprisingly, these officials inflate the wages and salaries of their friends and relatives too.

Meanwhile, in other related incidents in respect to irregularities in employment, employees claim time for work not done and there are payments to ghost teachers, that is vacant positions.

But the fate of the country’s future, namely the children, is largely in the hands of the people. The South African Schools Act provides all those with children in schools with an opportunity to participate in our democracy’s third biggest elections. Every three years, parents and guardians are able to first nominate and elect their preferred candidates and second, to be one of the elected 50% (plus one) members of the school governing body.

This happens this year — but if the past low levels of participation are anything to go by, only the results of these forthcoming elections will tell how seriously South Africans take their hard-earned right to vote and their duty to care for their children.

As they head to schools to cast their votes, it’s important for them to think profoundly of the calibre of leaders they would like to be responsible for their children’s lives. This is a decision that does not only have an impact for the next three years, but on their children’s futures.

Guardians have to consider the consequences that come with electing persons whose priority is politics of the stomach, rather than the well-being of their children. The politics playing out at our schools should be reserved for, dare it be said, political structures and not institutions that are expected to be vehicles of positive change in our tumultuous society.

As a person living with a disability, Melusi Ncala attended Prinshof School for the Blind in Tshwane and after matric he studied for, and obtained, a B.Ed and M.A. at Wits University. During his successful academic career he garnered several awards and served as deputy chairperson of the Disability Awareness Movement at the university. He currently works as a researcher for Corruption Watch, where his work includes, but is not limited to, data analysis, drafting/editing of research reports and providing input in advocacy programmes.

Melusi Ncala