Article The Future

South African education activism: a double-edged sword

Twenty years after South Africa became a democracy, poor black schools still struggle to compete on a level playing field

In 2014, South Africa celebrated 20 years of democracy, but if our education system is anything to go by, then perhaps celebrating is not something we should be doing. Despite attempts by multiple NGOs, activists and individuals to overhaul and assist in changing the system, class and race-linked issues remain prevalent throughout the country’s school system.

During apartheid, black South African children were educated under the Bantu Education Act. Its purpose was to serve the interests of the white nationalist party and it denied black children access to good quality education. Today, while quality education is neither exclusively nor legally for white schoolchildren only, the poorer, black schools are the ones that continue to struggle with a lack of resources and proper school infrastructure. They demonstrate the gross inequality in the South African education system. It became apparent to local NGO Equal Education that the only way to change this was to get the very children affected involved, to fight their own fight. With tens of thousands of learners at the forefront of this fight, they have managed to implement important change. Nonetheless, we should ask ourselves what this means for our youth, whether or not they should be fighting this battle when surely, it is the government’s responsibility to do so.

It is the learners themselves who are at the centre of this story. They are the ones who struggle and suffer the consequences of inadequate education, and yet they are the ones who are fighting for change.

I know of four different people who have died from trying to cross the river.

To some, this sounds like a line from a film script, but for many schoolchildren and teachers in rural South Africa, this is a daily reality. Mr Vilikazi, a teacher in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, describes how a teacher’s car was swept away as he tried to cross the bridge over the Mangeni River, how a school governing body member died trying to cross that same river and how two teachers were washed away when the river was full.

Mfundo, a high school learner in KZN, describes how even though he wakes up at 4am every morning, he is still late for school.

“I have to wake up and start the fire so that we can all have hot water to bathe, then I have to make breakfast for everyone in the house and then I bathe.” He and his sister walk for three to four hours to and from school each day, approximately 24km in total or a little over half a marathon.

Long and dangerous distances to school are not the only problems faced by South African schoolchildren.

For the learners by the learners

This is where Equal Education (EE) enters the picture. EE is a non-governmental organisation (NGO), comprising school learners, parents, teachers and community members.

Through research, analysis and active campaigns, EE, since 2008, has been working towards providing quality and equal education to all South African children. Its work draws attention to a range of problems experienced by learners, their teachers and schools across the country and by involving itself in these communities, offers a platform, especially for the actual learners - known as Equalisers - to participate in change.

That children between the ages of 14 and 18 are having to stand up and take the lead in the struggle for one of the most basic rights is a double-edged sword. On one hand, their active involvement is what drives very necessary change and if they were apathetic towards the situation, then it is possible that very little would have changed by now. But on the other hand, schoolchildren and young adults fighting for a constitutional right demonstrates the severity of the situation. The fact that it has been two decades since apartheid ended and these issues still exist is problematic and indicates that change is likely to be slow.

One of the ways in which EE has effected change is through its Minimum Norms and Standards campaign.

Education, a constitutional right

In 2007, Parliament initiated the idea of norms and standards for school infrastructure, but several years later the call had yet to be answered. This led EE to create an entire campaign dedicated to the issue.

EE realised that to meet the challenge on a national level, it would need to facilitate the creation of regulations that require the Minister of Basic Education to ensure that every public school in the country meets a certain standard. This is important because thousands of schools lack the very basic infrastructure necessary to provide learners with the quality of education they are constitutionally entitled to receive.

The provinces worst affected by a lack of quality remain to this day KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, but this is not necessarily exclusive to rural areas.

In 2011, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) released a report rife with horrific statistics, revealing our public school infrastructure was in dire need of fixing. Nearly 4,000 schools had no electricity, more than 2,000 had no water supply and almost 12,000 schools were still using pit latrine toilets. This means that children not only had to brave the often very dangerous journey to use bathroom facilities during school hours, but the facilities themselves were inadequate.

Then there was the issue of “extras”, which some would consider a luxury, but in fact are crucial to a quality education. So while private schools down the road were kitted out with the best science-lab equipment, multiple sports fields and courts, the latest computer and tablet facilities, first-class security and huge libraries filled with all kinds of books and other equipment, just a suburb away, public schools had nothing of the sort.

Schools need science labs, said Abongile of Bisho Primary School in the Eastern Cape. “We want to be scientists, but how can we become scientists if we don’t have science labs?”

Nearly 23,000 schools did not have stocked libraries, more than 21,000 had no laboratories, almost 3,000 had no fencing and about 20,000 did not have any form of computer centre. At the time, well over 400 schools in the Eastern Cape were operating either out of rooms made of mud, or entirely outside, with no shelter against the rain or sun.

So, EE spent the next three years working towards change. In 2011, a number of big things happened. On South Africa’s Human Rights Day, 20,000 Equalisers were joined by supporters in a march to Parliament, to hand over a memorandum that demanded the Minister (Angie Motshekga) adopt the Minimum Norms and Standards.

Cape Town city centre was packed with schoolchildren, community members, school staff, supporting NGOs and activists, as they brandished flags, signs and posters, stopping traffic and, finally, arriving at Parliament to sing struggle songs and for the first time properly put these concerns on the map.

This was when the campaign broadened to a more national level.

A few months later, in 2012, EE decided to go to court. Up until then, the movement had wanted to gain support and “win” their case on a political level. This after years of picketing, protesting, petitioning, letter-writing, sleep-ins and one-on-one campaigning. But they realised winning a case in court was the only way forward.

The South African constitution declares that “everyone has the right to a basic education”, so it was with this in mind that the Legal Resources Centre, on behalf of EE, filed an application to secure national minimum uniform norms and standards for school infrastructure. They claimed that tens of thousands of learners and teachers have been forced into unsafe environments that are not conducive to learning and that have grossly undermined what the constitution says is unquestionable law.

In 2013, a number of public hearings were held around the country, which gave the actual learners affected by these issues a chance to speak out about their situations.

Security and sanitation remained the biggest issues. Pupils from Cassino Primary School in the Eastern Cape said that pit toilets are “dirty and full of worms”, but this is only one part of the problem. They are also very dangerous. A number of pupils have been severely injured and in one case, a grade one pupil even died after he fell into a pit toilet and was only found hours later.

“I am now afraid of walking alone through the bush. The dark bush scares me a lot since someone was killed at that place,” said Luvuno, a matriculation pupil at Maceba Secondary School in KZN.

According to EE, about three in 10 submissions highlighted security problems at schools.

Delays on the road to adoption

In 2013, the Minister adopted the norms and standards, but getting there was no easy feat. Aside from the hard work and dedication demonstrated by EE’s staff, the learners themselves made a commitment to improve their own situation.

“We knew what had to be done. It was never a question of what was needed from us, only how to do it,” says Alice, a pupil from Bisho High School. “This is why we are a part of EE, it allows us to be a part of the modern-day struggle.”

Minister Motshekga promised, and now she must deliver, says Alice. It is as simple as this.

None of the MECs for Basic Education disputed the need for binding norms and standards, but in all the time it took for this to happen, the minister and her team asked for three separate extensions to file court papers and their written responses showed how deeply they had misconstrued what the right to a basic education actually means.

Adopted just over one year ago (November 29 2013) by the minister, the Norms and Standards state that by November 29 2016, “all schools without any access to water, electricity and sanitation, and all schools made entirely out of mud, wood, metal and asbestos, must be addressed.”

According to the DBE’s 2014 report, there are currently more than 600 schools without any access to water, more than 1, 000 without access to electricity and nearly 500 without any access to sanitation. Most shockingly though, more than 11, 000 schools still have pit latrines, which is prohibited by the Norms and Standards.

So while EE has praised Motshekga and the DBE for their adoption of the regulations, they have yet to make their implementation plans public. The organisation and its Equalisers have called on the provincial education departments to make their plans available online and that, much like the Norms and Standards, the public be allowed to comment on them.

“Our future is lying in your hands, Minister. We are really hoping to get help from you, seeing as you are the minister. Some of us might be a president of tomorrow,” said Palesa, of KZN’s Manthukulula High School.

*While Equalisers were willing to be interviewed and named, none of them were over the age of 18, so I have not used their surnames.

To read more about EE’s Minimum Norms and Standards campaign for School Infrastructure, visit

How this article was made

  • 705 points
  • 16 backers
  • 5 drafts
Creative Commons License

Also in this issue