Maverick Citizen

Opinionista

Now the election dust is settling, let’s get back to critical basics of equal education

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Jessie Ditshego is a children and women's rights activist, a Candidate Legal Practitioner at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals), Wits University, and a Bertha Justice Fellow.

The progress in transforming our education system has been stifled for too long at the expense of our children. It is time to press incoming leaders to eradicate pit latrines and provide safe and dignified school infrastructure to children in South Africa. 

Our voting ink is fading from our thumbs, and we are slowly sobering up from the euphoria of the elections. We have been compelled to think about what is next for our nation.

As a young person and advocate for human rights, I cannot help but wonder if we have done enough to protect the interests of those who were not allowed to vote during this election period. These are individuals who looked to us to elect the right leaders for our nation.

I find myself thinking about the future of this country and the young leaders who could come out of our public education system. At the advent of our democracy, one of the State’s mandates was to rectify the disparities caused by the discriminatory policies of the apartheid government. The State’s interventions were particularly meant to radically transform public education.

Although some remedial work has been done over the past 30 years, it has not been enough. There are still too many barriers that prevent poor black children in rural and township areas from accessing basic education in South Africa.

It has been just over 10 years since the current government issued the Regulations relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards. These regulations came after heavy civil society litigation by the likes of Equal Education, the LRC and Section 27 against the government for the non-delivery of its 1994 promises.

For the first time, it became actual law that schools must have safe classrooms, safe and working toilets/ablution facilities, running water, electricity and later libraries, laboratories and sports facilities.

These legally binding standards were supposed to guarantee, among other things, that the basic infrastructure in township and rural public schools would be improved by 29 November 2016, and that libraries would be available by November 2023.

Regrettably, in 2024, the minimum standards and deadlines for proper infrastructure in schools have not been met. According to the Department of Education’s most recent report, 16,774 schools (74%) do not have libraries, and 18,671 schools (82.6%) lack laboratories.

Shockingly, 728 schools across the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal still rely on pit latrines as their only form of sanitation. This is despite the tragic deaths of five children due to pit latrine-related accidents at school, deaths that could have been prevented.

As we seek ways to hold the incoming leaders accountable, let us not forget the following children:

  • Lister Magongwa a 7-year-old from Limpopo who died after a toilet collapsed on him in 2013;
  • Michael Komape a 5-year-old boy from Limpopo who died after falling into a pit latrine in 2014;
  • Siyamthanda Mtunu, a 6-year-old who died after the walls of a toilet collapsed on him in 2017;
  • Lumka Mkhethwa, a 5-year-old from the Eastern Cape who died after falling into a pit latrine in 2018;
  • Oratile Dilwane, a 5-year-old from North West who fell into a pit latrine and was severely injured and swallowed excrement in 2016; and
  • Unecebo Mboteni, a 3-year-old from the Eastern Cape who tragically lost his life earlier this year (2024).

It is alarming that our Department of Basic Education, under the leadership of the ruling party, has grossly neglected the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in South Africa — especially because basic infrastructure in public schools is an integral component of the constitutional right to education.

A collective responsibility to hold leaders accountable

The progress in transforming our educational system has been stifled for too long at the expense of our children. It is time to press incoming leaders to eradicate pit latrines and provide safe and dignified school infrastructure to children in South Africa. 

While it is true that apartheid left a monumental legacy, there is still much work to be done to address the structural and systemic inequalities it created within our education system. There have been missed opportunities over the past 30 years to eradicate unsafe classrooms and pit latrines. We now need to prioritise addressing patterns of inequality that affect children’s constitutional rights to education, dignity and equality.

In order to educate African children fit for the 21st century, South Africa needs to prioritise addressing the challenges in its education system. Providing basic education alone is no longer enough. We urgently require leaders who can drive us towards improving the quality of basic education and evaluating the actual output of our education system. This means closely monitoring and evaluating learners’ competency levels in basic numeracy and literacy, as well as their acquisition of reading, writing, and comprehension skills, and responding to existing gaps.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Desperate times call for desperate measures — and our schooling is in dire straits

It is unacceptable that 30 years into a democratic South Africa, civil society is still crying itself hoarse about the need for safe classrooms, sanitation facilities and libraries. These are basics which are crucial for the fulfilment of the right to education.

The need of the hour is for us to take a strong position when it comes to the education of ALL children in South Africa. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that our State is building an inclusive system which provides quality and relevant education.

May we cling to what each political party has promised to offer and see to it that the plans related to improving education in our country materialise.

Soon, our generation will be in the hot seat, having to explain to the next generation what went wrong, and what we did about it. May we be found blameless, having done all that we could to remove the barriers to education and advance the interests of the future leaders of our country. DM

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