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THE BIG READ: Our history of failure

Faranaaz Veriava | 2012-07-16 00:25:30.0
Basic Education minister Angie Motshekga. File photo.
Image by: LAUREN MULLIGAN

Amid the Limpopo textbook debacle and the media coverage of "tree schools" and "schools of shame" there are increasing calls for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to be removed from her position.

Yet these problems and many others that haunt public education have always been with us.

They are the legacy of apartheid, the racialised funding of education and, yes, the failure of the democratically elected government to redress this legacy.

So, what is different now and why is the public baying so vociferously for the minister's blood?

Is it because conditions have deteriorated further under her watch, or that pupils at inferior schools - and their parents - have had enough 18 years into democracy?

I recently attended the opening of Equal Education's first congress in Tembisa, on the East Rand, where the question of the accountability of the minister and her director-general, Bobby Soobrayan, was tabled.

I listened with interest to the opening address by Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi, who apologised for the failure of the trade union federation to avert the textbook debacle.

Equal Education coordinator Doron Isaacs reported on the state's response to his organisation and the Legal Resources Centre's challenge to upgrade schools in the Eastern Cape and implement norms and standards for school infrastructure.

These norms were developed by the government as early as 2008 but have never been implemented.

They are an acknowledgement of the link between poor infrastructure and bad outcomes for pupils.

They aim to set basic standards all schools must meet.

According to Isaacs, the government's response to the challenge was that it would not implement these norms.

My guess is that this is because of resource implications.

In 2003, there was a disparate but growing mobilisation in civil society for free education. Civil society players loosely included the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Global Campaign for Education, the Education Rights Project and the Alliance for Children's Entitlement to Social Security.

With undeniable evidence of poor pupils being turned away from schools because they were unable to afford the fees - and amid evidence of schools failing to grant exemptions to eligible pupils - the then education minister, the now late Kader Asmal, faced the threat of a constitutional challenge to the school fee policy.

Asmal, a human rights lawyer and a savvy politician, averted the challenge by announcing a "review" of the policy framework for school fees and the resourcing of schools.

Pursuant to that , he released the "plan of action for improving access to free quality basic education for all".

The most significant amendment to the policy framework was the abolition of fees at the poorest schools.

The rights rhetoric employed in the policy documents referred to these reforms as the "progressive roll-out of free education".

This was a masterful and deliberate misinterpretation of the state's obligation to ensure access to basic education, and to obfuscate the rights rhetoric employed by the free education campaign.

This "progressive roll-out" provided only limited reform - fees were abolished in the poorest schools but were retained in wealthier schools.

Poor pupils' access to these schools was limited. Asmal saw the writing on the wall. He responded by instituting reforms, limited though they were, and thereby averted a viable legal challenge and the mobilisation that supported it.

Motshekga, by contrast, has failed to seize the moment .

The current department did not cause the crisis. But it has failed to respond adequately to the challenges under its watch.

That is what it should be held accountable for.

There is a lack of empathy for the fact that pupils have lost more than half the academic year because of the non-delivery of textbooks.

Like Vavi, the minister and her colleagues ought to be apologising for the textbook debacle. And that apology should be accompanied by a viable and committed catch-up plan to resolve the crisis.

The call for a judicial commission of inquiry into the debacle should also be supported.

Then there is the response to Equal Education's legal challenge.

Section 29(1)(a) of the constitution states that everyone has the right to basic education.

This right is an unqualified socioeconomic one, not subject to progressive realisation within the state's available resources, as are other socioeconomic rights, such as health care and housing.

In the Constitutional Court case of Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School and another vs Ahmed Asruff Essay NO and others (Juma Musjid), the court, noting the absence of these qualifiers, described this right as being "immediately realisable".

In the context of the obligation to provide quality education, this would require the setting of standards and the immediate upgrade of all schools that failed to meet the requirements.

The failure on the part of the minister and her colleagues to begin a process of reform is to ignore a clear constitutional prerogative.

Her response then - more than resembling that of the late Asmal's response to the call for free education - resembles that of the late health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's answer to the Treatment Action Campaign's challenge in the mother-to-child-transmission of HIV case.

  • Veriava is a human rights lawyer

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