Resourcing quality education
The Khayelitsha-based Equal Education organisation began its work early in 2008 after a group of senior education activists, led by Zackie Achmat and Gauteng’s former minister for education, Mary Metcalfe, identified the lack of equal and quality education as a major stumbling block in preventing South Africa from developing positively and redressing past inequities.
“What we saw was that schools in Khayelitsha, like those in other poor communities, were underresourced, understaffed and overcrowded. These factors have a significantly negative impact on academic performance,” said the organisation’s co-founder, Yoliswa Dwane. As one of its first projects Equal Education asked its young members to go to their local schools to take photographs of anything that they thought affected their learning.
One Luhlaza High School student returned with a photograph that showed 500 broken windows. Equal Education successfully campaigned the government to fix the windows, which resulted in a R700 000 grant to renovate the entire school. In June 2010 Equal Education’s advocacy led to a national government policy on the “equitable provision of an enabling physical teaching and learning environment” in schools. Further campaigning generated a government commitment to allocate more than R8-billion to eradicate unsafe mud schools in the Eastern Cape.
Dwane said such work was “vital” because 20% of schools in South Africa lacked access to water and 95% had no equipped science laboratories. In March, the organisation proved that it had the power to mobilise people on a mass scale when more than 20 000 people converged on Parliament to participate in a “march for quality education”.
Equal Education now has offices nationally and active members in most provinces. It runs programmes on human rights and political education, as well as a leadership programme. “But education remains core to the organisation’s heart,” said Dwane. Many of its members are pupils in grades eight to 12; they are nicknamed “equalisers”.
“The equalisers are important because they are able to point out the problems facing their communities. They work together with those communities to improve schools and they set an example to their peers through their dedication to their own education,” Dwane said. The organisation believes in the power of the media and has a media programme that teaches general writing, interviewing and news-writing skills.
Young people are also taught to produce their own video and radio documentaries. “They learn to use media tools to take the education struggle forward,” said Dwane. Equal Education has also joined a major campaign for a national policy on school libraries by collecting more than 100 000 books to distribute in schools.
In addition, it has opened 10 school libraries and have trained volunteers to work as library administrators. A groundbreaking campaign to change the behaviour of late-comers that was piloted in eight Khayelitsha high schools in 2009 has spread to other parts of Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.
According to the website of Esangweni Secondary School in Khayelitsha, the campaign reduced the number of late-comers from more than 100 pupils a day to zero. The secret of the campaign’s success? It was led by pupils themselves, who encouraged their peers to talk about the problem to find workable solutions.
For Dwane, Equal Education is unique because it is not a traditional non-governmental organisation or charity—it empowers young people and communities by “requiring them to engage actively in the education of children”. It is not a one-way process either, because the organisation challenges the government to deal with “backlogs, planning and the provision of education”.
South Africa’s education sector may seem flawed, but Dwane is an optimist. She believes that problems related to inequality can be solved, though not through “empty theorising”. “It needs everyone to work together,” she said. Dwane wants the government to “open its doors” so that members of the public can have more information about the education system and identify where assistance is most needed.
She believes the private sector should play a greater role in transforming the quality of education for all South Africans. “Poor education will affect everyone. It will be hard to provide skilled labour if most children are illiterate and innumerate,” she said.
The judges praised the role Equal Education plays in advocating systemic change and for showing how it could be achieved in practical, proactive ways. The organisation had achieved a lot in a few years, they said, and had to be encouraged to expand.