South Africa: The Heartbreak Behind Children Leaving School

School classroom with desks.

A young boy's education is stopped when it has barely started, all because he's from an impoverished family who hardly survived even before Covid-19 brought added burdens.

Luyanda Khofu, 8, has been forced to drop out of school owing to his parents' dire financial situation. His mother, Elizabeth Khofu, 29, has been unemployed for the past five years and his father, Mongezi Silwane, 32, lost his job as a panel beater at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown last year.

Khofu says Luyanda constantly asks when he will return to school. "I tell him, 'My child, I don't have money to pay for your schooling, like buying a school uniform.'"

Luyanda last attended school in September 2019 when he, his two younger siblings and mother were living in KwaThema, southwest of Springs in Gauteng's East Rand. He was repeating grade 1. The Khofu family now rents a room for R600 in a shack settlement in Kya Sand, north of Johannesburg.

"I could no longer afford to pay for transport money," says Khofu, who paid R250 monthly to get Luyanda to school and back. She was able to pay it by selling food like vetkoek, fried chips and kotas from home.

"When it was month-end, I was able to sometimes make R120 a day, which enabled me to cover the transport money in two days," she says. But the rest of the month was difficult financially as she would only make R50 a day.

In KwaThema, Khofu stayed with her late mother's sister, but a family dispute forced her to relocate to Kya Sand in June 2020. "I called the father of my children and told him about the fights in the family. He advised me to come and stay with him."

In the process of moving, Khofu lost the birth certificates for Luyanda and one of his siblings, four-year-old Phiwe. This meant she could not register Luyanda at a free government school. She then approached a private school that accepted Luyanda without a birth certificate. But the school is expensive, costing R900 a month, and a uniform is R300.

Khofu went to the Department of Home Affairs to have the birth certificates replaced, but she was asked to bring proof of the children's births to get new ones. She managed it for Phiwe, who was born in Gauteng, but couldn't afford to do so for Durban-born Luyanda.

Cause and effect

Merle Mansfield, programme director of the Zero Dropout Campaign, which runs a national campaign to halve the rate of school dropouts by 2030, says poverty and inequality are still the biggest underlying causes of children leaving school. "Learners with poorer access to resources, support networks and opportunity are both more likely to experience disruptions to their education, and less likely to withstand them."

A few months after Silwane lost his panel-beater job, Khofu started begging at the corner of a four-way intersection near a shopping centre in North Riding so that the family could have food. "At Kya Sand it became hard. Sometimes, I would get piece jobs or food and clothes," says Khofu.

When she stands at the traffic lights, Khofu takes Luyanda and her 19-month-old son, Abulela, along with her. "When I have mielie meal, I cook for them something to eat for when we are at the robots," she says.

Khofu walks close to 45 minutes with her children to where she begs. She goes there seven days a week, except when it's raining. "It's not easy standing at the robots. I have accepted that I may get something or not. Days are not the same," Khofu says, adding that she takes Luyanda with her so that "he doesn't feel bad when he sees his friends going to school".

Standing next to his mother, who is seated on a white plastic basket, Luyanda wishes to go back to school. Asked what he loves about school, he answers, "Writing and reading."

Luyanda says not going to school makes him feel bored. "If my mother had the money, I would be studying. She would buy me a bag, clothes for school, shoes and a pencil for writing." He wants to become a police officer when he is grown up.

Leaving school early has long-term effects that harm children later in their lives, says Mansfield. "Poor schooling also means that many children will inherit the economic position of their parents, trapping them in a cycle of poverty with few opportunities to build a better life."

What makes children drop out

In October 2020, the Zero Dropout Campaign did a presentation to Parliament's portfolio committee on basic education about school dropouts in South Africa, identifying what it calls the push-out and pull-out factors involved. "Push-out factors act in the school space and include poor teaching and learning [and] poor learner outcomes, which heighten a learner's disengagement. Pull-out factors are linked to communities, family factors, inequalities, poverty and experience of trauma, which heighten disengagement," Mansfield told the committee.

Mathanzima Mweli, the director general of the Department of Basic Education, said during the meeting that it was "flawed to assume that all learners who have not reached the exit grade have dropped out". But he acknowledged that public schooling in South Africa faced problems. "The biggest challenge in basic education is the failure and repetition rate," he said. "There is a strong correlation between failure, grade repetition and the dropout rate."

Mansfield says the campaign "sought to demonstrate how existing data systems could be strengthened to prevent dropout" in its presentation to the committee, as better tracking of pupils' progress can lower the rate and even prevent them leaving school by identifying those at risk early on.

"By tracking the academic performance, behavioural struggles and chronic absenteeism of individual learners, we can get a better picture of their journey through school. This will signal when disruptions hit and ensure that we are able to design timely and well-informed psychosocial support programmes."

Worsening situation

A survey conducted by Statistics South Africa in about 22 000 households showed a decrease in the number of pupils dropping out between 2002 and 2018. The General Household Survey - Focus on Schooling 2018 states: "Looking at those of the compulsory school age, it is evident that 3.6% of 7 to 15-year-olds were out of school in 2002 (around 325 000 children). This percentage has decreased ever since, with 1.0% of learners (around 100 000 children) being out of school in 2018."

These statistics have increased again, however, because of Covid-19's impact. Mansfield says research by the Zero Dropout Campaign shows the pandemic has deepened inequalities, which has implications for school dropout rates. As a 2020 report states: "The effects of Covid-19 school closures, coupled with the economic impact of lockdown, have not been evenly distributed; in actual fact, Covid-19 has widened existing inequalities.

"Those who were already disadvantaged - including women, informal workers, vulnerable households and youth - have suffered most. They have borne the brunt of job losses and hunger, and are far more likely to be detached from learning or labour market opportunities."

An alarming rise in the number of school dropouts is confirmed by the latest National Income Dynamics Study on the pandemic's impact on schooling in South Africa, which confirms that the total number of pupils aged seven to 17 "missing" from school in 2021 is "estimated to be in the range 650 000 to 750 000".

"These numbers can be compared with the more than 300 000 primary public school learners who had, according to a parliamentary response by the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, not returned to school by November 2020," the report states.

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