Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Why the Limpopo textbooks case is still relevant as the DBE grapples with Covid-19

Why the Limpopo textbooks case is still relevant as the DBE grapples with Covid-19
POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA – NOVEMBER 8: A warehouse full of textbooks ready for delivery on November 8, 2012 in Limpopo, South Africa. The province had many delivery problems with textbooks during 2012. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Liza van Deventer)

‘We must guard against failing those who are most vulnerable. In this case, we are dealing with the rural poor and with children. They are deserving of constitutional protection.’ – Judge Mohammed Navsa, Supreme Court of Appeal.

The case between Basic Education for All (BEFA) and the Minister of Basic Education is of historical significance in the South African struggle for basic education. The case emerged following the non-delivery of textbooks to schools in Limpopo in 2012. After unfruitful correspondence and negotiation with the Limpopo Department of Education (LDOE), an urgent application made by SECTION27 was heard at the North Gauteng High Court. 

Despite the court order reminding the LDOE of its constitutional obligation to ensure all learners have textbooks, reports of schools not receiving textbooks persisted between 2012 and 2014. These cases culminated in an application made to the Supreme Court of Appeal in the case BEFA v The Minister of Basic Education.

The grievances of those unduly affected by the failures of the department of basic education signalled to the court that the affected learners were unfairly discriminated against. While other learners had received their prescribed textbooks and were able to commence with the curriculum, affected learners in the textbook case experienced an obstruction to their constitutional right to basic education.

On 23 April 2020, the world observed World Book Day. In South Africa, there seemed to be hardly any commemoration or celebration in honour of the day. The truth is, very few disadvantaged people living in South Africa are likely to be aware of World Book Day. Our local reality is far removed from other parts of the world; where the day might have involved engaging a collection of novels, like the adventures contained in Roald Dahl books or the magic that lies within the pages of Harry Potter.

In the typical South African experience, the exposure to books and inclination to read is owed to our institutions of education. Even within schools, the experiences of learners and their exposure to books differ between private and public systems, rural and urban settings, and lower and higher-income households.

The South African Book Development Council notes that poorer and rural households are less likely to have books in their home. According to their data captured in 2016, 58% of households in South Africa do not own books, and from that sample, 69% live in rural settings. 

The lockdown regulations now further restrict poorer and vulnerable children’s access to books while schools remain closed. In the presence of socio-economic inequalities that withhold intellectual capital in disadvantaged socio-economic classes, the effects of the South African lockdown on the opportunity for vulnerable children to read must be carefully understood. The textbook case aptly reminds us of the centrality of books in the right to education, which must be reiterated, and the provision and access to books made a priority now as the Department of Education (DBE) makes plans to proceed with learning during the Covid-19 crisis.

In a bid to minimise the inevitable loss of the school academic year, the DBE set up numerous remote learning tools. These include the launch of educational resources: online, broadcast and radio, which parents can now conveniently navigate via the SECTION27 resource map.

The launch of these resources was innovative and relatively speedy, given the short notice that the threat of the pandemic posed. However, a miscalculation of who will have access to the designated resources seems to have occurred. 

In his judgement in the textbooks case, Judge Navsa observed: “The advent of electronic reading materials has not lessened the impact of printed works. If anything, there has been an explosion of information which has rendered reading in the modern world all the more important.”

The 2017 South African Household survey shows that on average, only 1.7% of rural households have access to the internet. The smartphone penetration of South Africa’s population comes low at an estimated 40%. These figures suggest that children living in poorer and rural settings will be disadvantaged when trying to continue to exercise their right to education. 

Although it was innovative for the DBE to launch resources online, the Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2017: The South African Cut shows that the country’s communication network infrastructures are not equipped to support local demand. The 4G/LTE network in urban areas is only accessible to 63% of urban residents. Access to 4G/LTE networks drops to 38% in rural areas. Therefore, in both urban, but particularly in rural settings, many learners would be unable to effectively make use of the DBE online resources, which demand a high internet speed to complete downloads and navigate efficiently between multiple websites and web pages. 

In the absence of books and sufficient printed materials provided to learners for the duration of school closures, the proposed interventions by the DBE will predominantly leave out vulnerable learners. 

As history demonstrates, the effect of disproportionately accessible resources will breed inequalities. Considering that the South African education system remains a legacy of intractable socio-economic disparities, we cannot afford an outcome that will worsen inequalities and leave some learners further behind. 

The present socio-economic realities dictate that printed materials are still important. If the DBE is serious about completing the academic year, it has to keep in mind the centrality of books defended in the Limpopo textbook case. DM/MC

Boitumelo Masipa is a communications officer at SECTION27.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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