A preliminary ethical-pedagogical reflection on managing the COVID-19 pandemic by role-players in South African education

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On 5 March 2021, exactly one year had passed since the first COVID-19 case was reported in South Africa. At the time of writing this article (May 2021), more than 54 000 South Africans have died from the virus or complications related to it, and it seems that the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight. Although the second wave of COVID-19 was apparently on the wane by January–February 2021, various institutions (the government, in particular the Department of Health, the South African Medical Association and epidemiologists) feared that a third wave could hit South Africa due to mass infection during the 2021 Easter weekend and the accompanying large gatherings that continued to take place despite official regulations.

The word preliminary appears in the title of this reflective article, as the pandemic is not over yet, and many things might still occur that may confirm or refute the statements in this article regarding managing education during this period, while having the best interests thereof at heart. However, it is necessary to do a preliminary reflection as it is now, in the heat of the battle, as important ethical-moral-pedagogical insights and guidelines for the rest of the pandemic period may emerge.

Another term in the title of the article that was deliberately selected was behartiging (Afrikaans), meaning “managing something by specifically having its best interests at heart” (Stoker 1967). The Afrikaans word was chosen (and not any other synonym), as it contains in itself specific ethical-moral-pedagogical connotations.

The investigation I am reporting on in this article was centred on the following question: How, and to what extent, did the various role players in the South African education arena, in terms of the offered ethical-moral-pedagogical assessment framework, acquit themselves of their task, in other words, manage their task with the best interests of education at heart?

The ethical-moral framework on which the argument is based is the result of an interpretive-constructive literature review. In essence, this method means that every “fact” uncovered by the researcher should be interpreted. This interpretation gradually goes deeper, until the point is reached where the applicable theoretical and pre-theoretical (philosophical) presuppositions at the root of the investigation come to the fore. On the basis of this deepest foundation, the researcher then proceeds to the construction of an own theoretical framework – the construction phase of the method. The ethical-moral-pedagogical framework presented in the article is the result of the work done in this phase. Later on, I also applied the interpretive-constructivist method in assessing the ethical-moral-pedagogical views and actions of the various role players during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to comprehend the events and views regarding the first year of the pandemic, I used document analysis. In the process, I analysed speeches by role players and also information in the daily press. With regard to the latter, I proceeded from the same assumptions about the use of the daily press as Bowie (2019), who noticed at least three advantages in consulting the daily press as a preliminary source of historical information: (a) it helps one to gain insight into the context in which the events have taken place; (b) it provides the researcher with a whole spectrum of data, a day-to-day chronology of events as observed through the eyes of people directly involved in them, as the daily press, according to Bowie, reflects the authentic voices of the people involved in, or commenting on, events in the past – almost in real time – and offers the researcher the opportunity to gain insight into the attitudes and opinions of both the actors and the observers in a variety of genres of historical research; and (c) the use of the daily press as a data source is not directly dependent on the researcher’s own ontology.

Although it would be relatively “easy” to assess the ethical-moral-pedagogical actions of the authorities (state, government, Department of Basic Education) and other role players in “normal times”, it is more difficult in times of prolonged crisis, such as a pandemic. It is clear from the investigation reported on in this article that at the outbreak of the pandemic, the government, as well as other role players, was still inexperienced and was caught off guard, but gradually began to understand and manage the situation better. The analysis showed that the government gradually learnt from the mistakes made, highly valued and tried to promote group cohesion and stability, and promulgated regulations, most of which, with the exception of those related to alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, clothing and footwear, could be regarded as ethically justified by the citizenry. With a number of exceptions, as noted by the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, himself in his speeches, the citizenry internalised most of these promulgated regulations, and morally adapted themselves accordingly.

It is clear from the President’s speeches that he has gradually shifted the onus from the judicial-ethical task of the government to the moral responsibility of the citizens of the country. He did this by increasingly appealing to the moral compass of the latter. He gradually indicated that the prevention and combating of the pandemic would depend on the conscientious behaviour of each citizen.

Many mistakes were made during the first year of the pandemic in the field of pedagogy, in particular formal school education. Perhaps due to a lack of experience in crisis circumstances, the Department of Basic Education did not always act consistently and with compassion. Some announcements were made late, even at the last minute; the required protective equipment was not always made available to schools on time; proper consultation was not always done; the necessary infrastructure, such as running water, was not available everywhere; and so the list goes on. However, it seems as if things have gradually improved here as well. At the time of writing, learners are attending school in accordance with different attendance models in order to comply with safety regulations. There are signs that school education in 2021 will be fairly stable unless a third wave of the pandemic thwarts the status quo.

The initial situation faced by South Africans in March 2020 was the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This outbreak led to the authorities, the government of South Africa, having to take special measures to prevent a large-scale catastrophe. Although president Ramaphosa concluded each of his speeches with an implicit prayer and the hope that God would assist and save the South African nation during this state of disaster, it is not clear from which religious-philosophical point of departure this appeal to the Almighty was made. This is understandable, as the President speaks on behalf of all the citizens of the country, belonging to a rich variety of mainstream religions and denominations, with many following secular humanism. Hence, the President was forced to appeal to a generic Supreme Being.

As for the ethical-moral orientation of the government, judging by the speeches of both the President and minister of basic education Angie Motshekga, there is more clarity. A situationist orientation enabled the authorities to respond to the situation as it unfolded by, inter alia, announcing a state of disaster and then guiding the citizens through the five phases thereof. The President, and the government under his leadership, also followed a generalist-absolutist ethical approach in the sense that regulations (albeit sometimes somewhat ill-considered) were promulgated, and the citizens of the country were expected to obey them. On occasion, the President also followed a kind of natural (innate) law approach in appealing to the citizens of the country to do what they inherently knew was right to do. Although never stated in such terms, the values of ubuntu also came to the fore when the President occasionally mentioned that this was a Thuma Mina (send me) opportunity, and that the wellbeing of every citizen depends on the wellbeing and actions of all other South Africans.

As far as the ethical approach of the government is concerned, it can be concluded that the government, through the President, tried to maintain a balance between the deontological and the teleological. With regard to the former, the government has shown a strong sense of duty and has repeatedly emphasised that the citizens of the country too should fulfil their duty in the battle against the pandemic. As far as the teleological is concerned, it is clear from the President’s speeches that a victory over the pandemic is the ultimate goal of all of the measures taken and that everyone should work in that direction in solidarity, in the form of a social compact. The minister of basic education too was intent on establishing a delicate balance between the deontological (the duty to keep education running smoothly and to give the necessary attention to operational matters in the midst of the pandemic) and the teleological (successful education while the lives and health of all role players in education are preserved).

The investigation shows that much more is involved in taking care of a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic than may seem apparent. Apart from all the other matters involved, such as preventing large numbers of people from getting sick and dying, preventing the medical services from being overwhelmed, obtaining and providing the necessary medical equipment and medicines such as vaccinations, and managing the economy and education during times of crisis, there are less conspicuous, deeper-lying ethical-moral-pedagogical considerations at stake as well. These considerations also come into play in the management of formal education. It is gratifying to be able to conclude this article on a positive note, in that it appears as though the government of South Africa has understood and carried out its ethical-moral-pedagogical duty to a large extent, and that the moral compass of the citizenry has, in general, developed to the extent that they too understand and fulfil their moral obligations, also in the context of education. The mistakes made in education in the ethical-moral-pedagogical field have gradually been corrected. This offers hope that going forward, the pandemic will be dealt with successfully.

Keywords: COVID-19; ethics; education; education policy; morality; pandemic; pedagogy


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

’n Voorlopige eties-moreel-pedagogiese besinning oor die behartiging van die COVID-19-pandemie deur onderwysrolspelers in Suid-Afrika

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