We are ready for healing, says new Equal Education general secretary

Organisation looks to build on recent success while learning from mistakes

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Photo of woman speaking on a mic
Noncedo Madubedube was elected as Equal Education’s new general secretary in July. Photo: Nishal Röbb

Equal Education’s victory in the Bisho High Court last week was bittersweet, coming in the wake of sexual harassment allegations that have rocked the organisation. Nevertheless, the new leadership elected at the social movement’s third National Congress are determined to move forward.

The congress was held at Wits Education Campus in Parktown in the first week of July. EE members, including learners, parents and teachers from across the country attended the event.

GroundUp interviewed the newly elected General Secretary Noncedo Madubedube about the resolutions made, campaign plans and sexual harassment. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

GroundUp: What is the vision for Equal Education’s #FixOurSchools campaign?

Madubedube: In terms of the norms and standards case, we’re hoping for something that puts concrete commitments on the Department of Basic Education (DBE). We want to build relationships with the DBE, speaking to directors and officials, and making sure we are all on the same page about what is needed to fast track the backlog of school infrastructure in the country.

We want to make direct connections with officials because they are more willing to cooperate and work than political heads of different departments. So making this direct connection means we will be able to keep track of what is going on in terms of implementation.

The reason why this was one of the first things that EE took up was because it becomes the most visible disparity between a school that is functioning fine and one that isn’t. So the basic resources like a desk, a window and classroom size speak volumes to the way that people are able to access other resources like the internet, electricity or quality teachers.

None of the provinces across the country have been able to give us the implementation plans since the first deadline of the norms & standards policy, which is a problem. We are putting pressure on different government departments about what they’re doing to give us information.

GroundUp: Does EE have any plans for other campaigns?

Madubedube: There is still a lot of consideration around scholar transport. We were able to achieve such a huge victory in KZN so we’re looking at how we can use that victory to help other parts of KZN. We also want to know what is happening with the National Scholar Transport Policy.

Also water and sanitation in Limpopo is crucial. There may also be a need for a broader sanitation campaign just looking at reports and conversations. [We are also looking at making] safer schools.

Then we are involved in a couple of court cases such as the Grootkraal case (land expropriation), the Reclaim the City case regarding the Tafelberg land, and the police resources case with the Social Justice Coalition.

GroundUp: Some EE constitutional amendments were adopted at the Congress. Could you elaborate on some of these changes and why they are important?

Madubedube: One of the bigger things that we did and I’m super proud of is that we had to reconstitute our parent branches. What makes us different as a movement is that we deliberately want to engage with various stakeholders like principals, teachers, parents, learners and School Governing Bodies to shape the change we want to see.

So our parent branches weren’t constituted in the way they organise [parents are now included in EE’s constitution and made an official structure of the organisation]. This became a problem in the Western Cape for example, where parents were running this campaign around walking buses [where volunteers walk with learners to get them to school safely] which supports the provincial campaign for safety.

The parents were saying ‘look, it’s unfair for us to organise but not be constituted in the way we work’. This also helps make sure that when other parent branches, maybe in the Eastern Cape, in KZN or Limpopo, organise, they already have something to reference as a working strategy. That was a big win.

The second thing was constituting for the first time what post-school youth means at Equal Education.

I understand that when the movement started it needed to be centred on secondary school learners and that hasn’t necessarily changed. But a lot of the people who started with the movement in 2008 and even 2012 have now become university or college students, or unemployed youth.

They also feel that they, as they contribute to the movement as volunteer facilitators, need to be empowered by the work that they do beyond a conscious activism. They also need access to job opportunities and need to be constituted so they can practice their own internal democracies.

There was a model that was agreed upon after a long consultation process which established the Provincial Executive Committee. This is a post-school structure.

Post school used to refer to just a facilitator volunteer but now it refers to anyone between the ages of 18 and 25 years who contributes to the movement in any way, whether it be part of a university branch, tertiary societies or whether you come in on mass actions.

So it gives those comrades a space to call themselves one body, constituted, and to find ways to govern each other internally. This was a big one because it means the movement is growing and it’s starting to consider the different people who come into the movement, how they journey out into the “adult world” and how they can still contribute to the movement and grow themselves.

Another thing that the sexual harassment cases have taught us is that on National Council we need a strong degree of independence in the people that we co-opt. We need to find comrades who will come into the space with a real level of ground work experience and other expertise where necessary, for example, if you’re the treasurer. But also people who will say, ‘look Noncedo, in your position as the General Secretary you are abusing power.’

So one of the resolutions that was passed at the congress was that the position of chairperson should be unpaid and the chairperson should not be a staff member of the organisation, just to maintain a level of independence.

GroundUp: How has EE been affected by the sexual harassment allegations and how has it proceeded to deal with them?

Madubedube: At EE we have a policy and procedures document which gives us a code of conduct on how we should act towards each other and the repercussions of our actions. But what we’ve learnt is that the document isn’t people-proof. So various forms of organisational reviews are happening at the moment.

And we started to get questions from learners asking things around differences between sexual harassment and sexual assault which just goes to show the limitations of our traditional curriculum.

And I won’t lie to you, it often resulted in learners saying, ‘look sis Noncedo, I figured out after the workshop that we ran last week that one of my teachers is sexually harassing me’. Those are the sorts of things we can bring to light and this is good because it shows comrades that we aren’t organising in this bubble. When we speak education and equality, we are charging for a societal change.

But even walking around the space, through the process of healing, everyone is starting to have this consideration a bit more and we’re talking to each other about ideas that we have and ways we can implement them. The space is starting to feel better. We are ready for healing.

We’ve formed a subcommittee, which has a representative from each province, that will have an external person helping us to look at how our organisation is at the moment when pertaining to any abuse of power. It is also looking at how we can incorporate lessons from congress and what staff wellness or wellbeing actually means. [It’s looking at] how we create a culture where we’re able to hold each other accountable to good societal norms.

The exciting thing is that we’ve come into these positions as elected leadership and we’ve got our own angst. But everyone has been really supportive and wanting to get back into campaign work and see how they can contribute to different things. People are ready to build from here.

We’ve been dealt a huge lesson but we’re young and this is a youth-led movement. If not us to take on these lessons and show the rest of society how to actively deal with these things then who else?

Sexual harassment is endemic in our society and societal ills like racism, sexism and the other isms are sometimes going to find expression in our movements but the difference is how we deal with it. And we’ve been honest and brave in how we confront these things.

TOPICS:  Education

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