JOHANNESBURG--History was made in South African education policy recently when a local non-governmental organization settled out of court with South Africa's Department of Basic Education to spell out standards for schools across the nation.
Equal Education planned to take the department to court on November 20, challenging the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, to publish concrete guidelines for school infrastructure. At the heart of the organization's argument for these standards were a few simple yet somber statistics. In the run up to the court case, Equal Education released a motion graphic that spelled out the need they saw for norms in school infrastructure.
The motion graphic rattles off statistic after depressing statistic (taken from the department's own data). Of the 24,793 schools in the nation, 14 percent don't have electricity, ten percent are without water and staggering 93 percent don't have libraries. South Africa's largest Internet service provider is state run, yet 90 percent of schools don't have computer labs, let alone access to the web.
Rather than face a protracted court case and more negative publicity in a year that's been full of bad news for the department, Motshekga gave in to the rights group and agreed to publish regulations on school infrastructure by January 15, finalizing them by May 15.
South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, guaranteeing rights to everything from housing to clean water. The constitution also states that every citizen has the right to a basic education but doesn't spell out exactly what that means. The lawsuit was meant to force the department's hand into stating exactly what citizen's can demand of their schools.
Equal Education's Brad Brockman said, "These norms and standards take an abstract right to basic education and make it concrete, at least as far as infrastructure is concerned." The standards "will be a tool to build that understanding, which people must act upon to ensure actual delivery from districts and provinces."
Equal Education's campaign for school standards has been slowly building since it was founded in 2008, but the campaign gained nation-wide attention with the "Build the Future" motion graphic. Created by South African firm Rodeo Productions, the video has been viewed more than 14,000 times on Youtube.
Equal Education is based in Khayelitsha, a township of grinding poverty located on the outskirts of Cape Town.
High schools in Khayelitsha, like schools in many townships throughout the country, often have classes with more than 60 students packed into overcrowded rooms. In the motion graphic, Khayelitsha's 19 high schools are set against one school in the nearby wealthy community of Rondebosch. The 165 graduating students in Rondebosch produced 404 As in their final year. All of Khayelitsha's schools could only manage 44.
Education remains one of the largest failures of democratic South Africa. Writing in the City Press, Equal Education's 29-year-old chairperson Yoliswa Dwane states, "Indeed educational inequality may be the most enduring legacy of apartheid."
The ruling is being widely praised as a victory for much needed education reform in the country, but many see it as only a start. In one of the final passages in the motion graphic, the narrator addresses all young South Africans and speaks to the real goal of setting national standards in education.
Our mothers and fathers are domestic workers, bus drivers and miners. Fixing our schools means hope for a generation who want to be doctors, engineers and teachers. We are a country that has overcome injustice. We can right the things that are wrong.
Equal Education's Dwane said, "As soon as the celebration ends the work will begin again. We will now intensify our efforts, double our activism and triple the pressure."