On this Human Rights Day, just a few weeks away from the national elections and as South Africa celebrates almost 25 years of freedom, our thoughts turn to how South Africa is performing on rights protection and enjoyment. One of the areas where South Africa continues to face significant challenges is the right to education.
Legally we have a strong framework founded on Section 29 of the Constitution and supported by international treaties ratified by the government such as the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The importance of this fundamental right has been recognised by our Constitutional Court when it held that the right to basic education should be “immediately realisable” and not subject to progressive realisation – something all governments both national and provincial need to bear in mind.
Broadly, our legal framework is in line with international law with one important exception. South Africa has exempted itself from the requirement to ensure that primary education is available free to all, and many state primary schools are permitted to still charge students fees. Last year the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticised the decision of the government to opt out of this obligation and to reconsider its position. Yet there is no indication that the current government is willing to do so.
Since the end of apartheid South Africa has made significant progress in certain areas of education. Access has increased considerably to the point where nearly 90% of 5-year-olds are now in school compared to about 40% fifteen years ago. Completion rates have also improved at both primary and secondary level, especially among black Africans, although the level of drop outs is still worryingly high.
However, the education system is still facing major challenges mirroring the country’s deep socio-economic inequality. Outcomes vary greatly with very high percentages of children at Grade 4, the vast majority from disadvantaged communities, not achieving basic literacy and numeracy.
During the last year Amnesty International has been conducting research to see what is happening on the ground. We visited many schools in some of our poorest communities across Gauteng and the Eastern Cape and spoke to hundreds of individuals – learners, parents, SGBs, teachers, activists, unions, academics and officials – to get a direct sense of the state of education and will be launching a major campaign on these issues soon. We heard uplifting stories of success even under the most adverse conditions.
Learners achieving top marks and going on to university from some of the poorest schools; inspirational teachers making a real difference to the lives of their students; communities supporting their local schools by giving time and what little money they have.
Schools falling apart
However, we also saw first-hand schools that are literally falling apart – never renovated since they were built decades ago with collapsing and unsafe buildings; extremely overcrowded classrooms – up to 60-70 students in some cases; insufficient textbooks for all learners; lack of decent sanitation with the continued use of pit toilets and the absence of essential amenities such as libraries, laboratories and sports facilities that can enrich education and which are taken for granted in our wealthier institutions. Our evidence simply reinforces the government’s own statistics that it is continually missing its own targets for vital infrastructure upgrading.
It is clear that resources need to be not just increased but also allocated where they are needed most to ensure that all children can receive a decent education. Although the government has spent a relatively high amount on education particularly compared to other areas of social spending since taking over power in 1994, the level of resources has not increased since 2012 and recently, like other public services, has been subject to significant cuts due to austerity measures.
The next government needs to make good on concrete promises to address ongoing education failings. It can start to do this by implementing the recommendations of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights from last year, and improve school infrastructure including sanitation facilities and reducing school drop-out rates.
Beyond these immediate needs, the government should guarantee all children access to a decent, affordable education, including by ensuring all state primary schools are adequately resourced by the government and not reliant on fees from students to meet resourcing shortfalls.
The power of human rights as a concept is underpinned by both their universality – we all enjoy the same rights regardless of who we are or our circumstances – and ensuring accountability for their fulfilment. As we celebrate this amazing idea today, let us all recommit to ensuring that future generations of South Africans can both enjoy their right to a decent education and hold those to account who have it in their power to make it a reality.
Shenilla Mohamed is executive director of Amnesty International South Africa in Johannesburg and Iain Byrne is economic, social and cultural rights researcher/adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in London, UK.
This article first appeared on News24.