The story of a 16-year-old girl from Soweto who spoke out about failings in the township’s education system made front page news and led television bulletins. Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) congratulates media organisations who gave a voice to this child’s concerns. However, MMA hopes that the authorities who invited her to speak publicly have put adequate protections in place to ensure that she is not at risk of victimisation as a result.

Sibongile Mthiyane’s speech to teachers, students, parents and politicians at an education conference in Soweto led all of the news bulletins on SABC on Saturday 9 April 2011. Her outspoken comments were also carried in four newspapers, and were referenced in two editorials.

The education conference aimed to address challenges faced by schools in Soweto, which according to Sowetan “has by far the highest number of underperforming schools at 60 compared with other townships” (“Teachers date us and send us to buy alcohol for them during school house,”Sowetan, 11/04/2011, p.10). Those attending the conference later signed a declaration aimed at getting the education system in the township back on track.

Sibongile, a 16-year-old pupil, was a guest speaker at the conference and had very harsh words for teachers in Soweto’s schools. Impregnating and dating students, spending too much time striking and holding union meetings during class time, not working on payday and general poor attendance, dressing sloppily and drinking on the job: these were some of the accusations she laid against those responsible with educating children in Soweto. She also reprimanded the Congress of SA Students (COSAS) for disrupting classes, and she criticised her peers for abusing drugs in school.

SABC news bulletins quoted her telling the education conference that “they send us to go buy alcohol during school hours, that of which they drink during school hours,” and asking teachers “How can you stand in front of me and teach me when you are dating me?” The bulletins outlined the other complaints made against teachers at the conference, and quoted the Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane saying that “ education in Soweto has been compromised and is in a state of decline because of the pursuit by some of selfish interests, by scholars, educators and parents.”

Sibongile Mthiyane’s criticism of teachers made the front page of Daily Sun (“Whack”, 11/04/2011, p.1 and “Sibongile hits at teachers” 11/04/2011, p.2). Daily Sun outlined the issues addressed in the student’s speech and published three separate quotes from her address. The newspaper also accessed Premier Mokonyane and published a commitment from Tshidiso Ledimo of the SA Democratic Teacher’s Union (SADTU) that it would try harder to improve things and deliver on a number of goals including teachers “being punctual and prepared for lessons” and being “sober”.

Sibongile’s speech also inspired Daily Sun’s editorial “Tough, good people CAN stop this rot!”(11/04/2011, p.8). It stated that “today we see rowdy crowds occupying this important space… of educating the Soweto child” and it urged “good people to get things back to normal.”

The student’s speech was also the focus of the Sowetan article “Teachers date us and send us to buy alcohol for them during school hours” (11/04/2011, p.10). It published three of Sibongile’s quotes, as well statements from Premier Mokonyane and SADTU’s Ledimo. Statistics showing the decline in standards in Soweto’s schools were also provided in the article. Sowetan went on to publish an editoral “Attend to her anguish” (11/04/2011, p.14), which described the child’s speech as ‘the ultimate cry for help – to you South Africa.”

The Star’s “Summit held over crisis in township education” (11/04/2011, p2) reported more broadly on the conference, but also referred to the 16-year-old’s speech in the article.

While in its article “Pupils paint damning picture of bad teachers’’ (11/04/2011, p.6), The Times not only quoted Sibongile’s speech, but also interviewed two other learners, a 17-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy. These students were also critical of their teachers, with the girl accusing teachers of “cheating” her out of her future saying “they won’t ask [on the university entrance applications] if teachers are teaching.”

It is interesting to note that The Times chose to protect the identities of the two other pupils accessed in this article as it is possible that children who speak out so boldly against their teachers may be victimised by educators, parents or peers.

It is for this reason that MMA is a little concerned that a 16-year-old was put forward as a visible, identifiable spokesperson at a public event. We do not fault media for reporting on Sibongile’s presentation, which was made in such a public way. In fact, MMA is disappointed with The New Age, which, save for publishing a photograph of the 16-year-old, completely ignored all of the issues raised by the child at the event, and indeed any of the concerns raised about teachers’ behaviour. Instead “Summit pledges class fillip” (The New Age, 11/04/2011, p.5) focused on parents and children’s responsibilities and behaviour.

Nevertheless, MMA hopes that organisers fully explained the potential consequences of speaking out to Sibongile, and that special measures were put in place to prevent any possible victimisation by anyone upset by her important and critical observations.

We applaud the media who recognised how important this child’s contribution was, and we hope that her bravery is rewarded with changed behaviour in Soweto’s schools.