Opinionista Nikki Stein 29 August 2012

We fought for the voiceless; we will fight for the silenced

Quality basic education is a right. But lapses in delivering this most fundamental building block to a strong society have been compounded by efforts to silence those who would speak out. 

In the past two days I have met with teachers and principals from five different schools in two different provinces. Each of these teachers requested to meet to discuss concerns ranging from lack of textbooks to insufficient classrooms, from inadequate school toilets to the lack of appropriate measures to accommodate learners with disabilities. There is no doubt that until these and other issues are addressed, the constitutional right to basic education cannot be realised.

The teachers and principals I met with asked me not to disclose their names or the names of their schools. They are terrified of the repercussions they will face if anyone finds out they “blew the whistle” on the failure the Department of Basic Education to realise the right to basic education. One of these teachers refused to even tell me her name for fear that it would come out somehow and she would lose her job immediately.

Another teacher I met recounted a recent meeting during which he was told by the Minister of Basic Education herself that if he valued his career he would not tell anyone that his school had yet to receive any textbooks.

Those of us who choose to do public interest law are motivated by a desire to seek legal remedies for those who are powerless to do so for themselves. The root of their powerlessness is their lack of means: they are too young or too poor to seek legal services; they live in remote areas and have no physical access to courts; there are structural and infrastructural reasons why they need assistance in enforcing their constitutional rights. The assistance public interest lawyers give helps these people tell their stories and be heard. 

Over the last months, my eyes have been opened to a very different group of people who are powerless to enforce their rights. They are not silent because they are young, old, poor, sick or living in remote areas. They are silent because they are being forced into silence. They are being threatened and intimidated by their leaders, the same leaders who bear the obligation to provide textbooks, to accommodate learners with disabilities, to create environments conducive to quality teaching and learning.

These are attempts to perpetuate a culture of silence. In the past, what was not reported did not exist and those who tried to overcome that were met with harsh sanctions. This was the only way in which the Apartheid government could retain its power and continue its gross human rights violations.

Today, when breaches of fundamental rights are reported, our government goes to great lengths to silence the whistleblowers. Unlike the Apartheid era, though, we now have a strong legal structure in place to address this, to prevent the victimisation of whistleblowers and to encourage openness, transparency and accountability. Where citizens’ rights are infringed, there is a court system in place to enable them to seek access to justice. 

This is precisely what we intend to keep doing. The rules of the game have changed. The voiceless have now become the silenced. We now need to work through two layers of rights violations. In addressing violations of the right to basic education we must address the attempts to undermine any challenges to these violations.

The education movement is growing, and the determination of teachers, learners, parents, school governing bodies and civil society is strengthening. We remain committed to a quality basic education for all learners in all areas. 

Quality basic education is a right. It is a right that must be realised fully and immediately. Attempts to undermine this right and silence those who seek its realisation are themselves in breach of fundamental rights. And we will take whatever steps are necessary to overcome these attempts and to ensure a quality basic education for our children. DM


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