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Updated: Jul 13, 2021

In the previous post, we considered the history of “People’s Education for People’s Power” and the role of learners in the struggle against apartheid. Here, we think about education rights in post-1994 South Africa.

Early last year, I had the opportunity to work through the University of Cape Town’s archives, researching children and education in the South African human rights struggle. I spent days silently paging through records, deeply struck by old photographs, news clippings, posters and letters that, time and again, foregrounded the contribution children had made to our struggle, and the recognition their sacrifices received from elders.

In a report called “Children on the Frontline”, Francis Wilson and Mamphele Ramphele said the following:

“Ever since the Soweto Revolt in 1976, black children in South Africa have been at the cutting edge of their country’s history. They began by protesting against an inadequate and racist education system and, in subsequent years, fought on a broader front for political change that would both stiffen the resolve of their elders and lead to the transformation of the society in which they were trapped. There are few countries in the world, at any time in history, where children have found themselves so much in the frontline of a determined and violent struggle for change or where so much historical weight has been placed on such young shoulders.” (40)

The contribution of school-based struggles was pivotal, particularly in drawing international attention to the apartheid crime against humanity.

Today, celebrating our nation’s 24th Freedom Day, we remember the sacrifices of those who struggled for democracy. Among them are children and part of their achievement is a democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights internationally recognised as among the world’s most progressive.

Yet Education is a sphere of rights in which it is clear that the legal and political gains achieved in 1994 remain to be fully realised. As with many areas of South African human rights law, our policy and legal framework often poetically capture a pro-poor vision, but somehow break down at the level of implementation.

The Right to Basic Education is enshrined in Section 29 of our Constitution. It is unusual among socio-economic rights in being immediately realisable, which means it is not qualified by the condition that it be “progressively realised” “within available resources”. Basic Education is supposed to be a priority. Everyone is entitled to it, now.

Part of the reason for this is because Education is an “empowerment right”– it’s realisation supports the fulfilment of many other rights. This is reflected in the following policy statement about the aim of a right to education:

To enable a democratic, free, equal, just and peaceful society to take root and prosper in our land, on the basis that all South Africans without exception share the same inalienable rights, equal citizenship, and common national destiny. (White paper on Education and Training, 1995)

Despite this, we cannot say that each child in the schools we work with is being afforded an adequate basic education, as is their right. Issues in rural areas have continued, with schools sometimes turning to the courts as a last resort to eradicate “mud schools”, win proper appointment and pay for teachers, have textbooks delivered and transport provided, among more.

Wins in these areas have value, but courts are not an ideal platform for this struggle. Litigation ties the state into costly legal battles and even successful verdicts often result in judgments that are not implemented. However, in the absence of powerful, organised political action able to achieve gains, legal challenges have sometimes become a final resort.

This is where we might ask again: what happened to the mass movements that centralised people’s education for people’s power and freedom?

In rural areas, part of the answer may be found in inherited structural constraints: communication barriers where many schools lack administrators and email or scanning facilities, parents having to walk great distances to attend meetings, and families often needing to prioritise electricity or water over the more seemingly abstract right to education.

Another potential answer lies in demobilisation of grassroots community organisations post-1994. After democracy, there was a generalised move away from these groups that had found ways to meet their people’s needs outside of a repressive, negligent system and contributed to toppling apartheid through mass popular protest.

Wits academic Thokozani Mathebula (2013) reflects on this in the education sector, saying that although early policy documents embraced People’s Power in principle, there was soon a turn towards technocratic solutions in policy formulation and implementation. Essentially, we were told that the experts now had this in hand, that we could go home and wait.

Thinking about Axium’s recent experience of commenting on the Draft Rural Education Policy, I can see how this might be the case. At least at this stage and from our perspective, the public participation process on this document appears to have been far from robust and statements about public engagement going forward are vague.

All hope isn’t lost, however. Activism in the education sector has surged again in the past 10 years, with advocacy organisations lobbying for change and many stepping in to develop solutions like the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT).

Gains have been won in Norms and Standards and Learner Transport, involving learners in the battle. National movement Equal Education recently celebrated 10 years of activism in schools, stating that “Our first Youth Group was a meeting of seven Equalisers in Khayelitsha. Now, there are over 7,000 EE members who gather every week across five provinces, engaged in political education.”

I have worked with Equalisers and they are deeply impressive young people, confident and powerful future leaders. Their gains are to be celebrated, but let us not forget the rural areas, too often left outside of this fold and facing very particular challenges.

There is no lack of potential for leadership among the learners in our rural schools. But to what extent do we still see learners, parents and teachers as active agents in an ongoing struggle? Why is it that we need to go to court for solutions? How can we bring learners in to make the Constitution a living document?

Head of Axium’s Grade 6 – 9 Masakhane programme, Gene McAravey recently said this about her students: “There’s an openness to change and possibility. That things could happen and my life could be other than it is.”

Our responsibility as citizens concerned with the ongoing battle for equality in South Africa is to ensure these students have the support to harness this spirit and develop their intrinsic capacities. We owe this to them, and we owe it to the generation of students who went before and fought for the freedom we should now enjoy.

Pic: Masakhane Grade 8 students raise their fists while holding the Bill of Rights

This article draws on the following resources:

Zwelakhe Sisulu. (1987) “People’s education for people’s power” Issue: A Journal of Opinion Vol 15: 18-29.

Thokozani Mathebula (2013) People's Education (for People's Power) - a promise unfulfilled South African Journal of Education vol.33 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2013

Equal Education Newsletter (13 April 2018) “10 Years of Activism.”

Report: Children on the Frontline

Legal Resources Centre Website

South African History Online

Popular Education

Honours research (2014) completed by the author in the Department of Political Studies at the University Currently Known as Rhodes, based on academic research and interviews with LRC human rights lawyers.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.

White Paper on Education and Training, 1995.

National Education Policy Act 27 of 1996: section 4 (b).

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