New SAHRC charter encourages the right to basic education

Bongani Nkosi

The right to basic education has received a major boost with the launch of the South African Human Rights Commission's (SAHRC) landmark charter.

'The charter takes this brilliant Constitution the country has and makes it a tangible activity that people can look at and be able to say their right to education has been realised,' said SAHRC commissioner Lindiwe Mokate. (AFP)

Experts on Thursday told the Mail & Guardian the charter of children's basic education rights, which the SAHRC launched in Johannesburg, will help bring numerous public school anomalies to the fore.

The charter lists legal obligations the government should realise to ensure all pupils in the country have access to quality education. The SAHRC hopes to use the charter to make South Africans aware of what the government should deliver to schools, and make demands accordingly.

“The charter takes this brilliant Constitution the country has and makes it a tangible activity that people can look at and be able to say their right to education has been realised,” Lindiwe Mokate, an SAHRC commissioner, told the M&G after the launch.

It is about enabling pupils to say they “go to schools with good buildings, they have qualified teachers in their schools and teachers are sufficient in numbers”, said Mokate. “They are not exposed to violence in their schools and feel safe.” Furthermore, she said: “They can get to school”.

As is the case in parts of the country, pupils should not face the prospect of drowning in dams they cross while going to school or have to fight people who want to harm them along the way. “Distances that [some] children walk to school are so long. We're saying to the government: you have put in place policies and agree to do certain things. Then do it.”

A welcome tool
The charter is a welcome tool for organisations currently embarked on civil litigation against the basic education, human rights lawyer Faranaaz Veriava told the M&G. It will also help the SAHRC monitor delivery, she said.

“It's a much-needed document, it's very thorough.

“I hope it is used by civil society. In the context where there's [a] lot of advocacy and [a] lot of litigation, it would be useful to have a document like this to help back up efforts of organisations like Section27 and Equal Education and the Legal Resources Centre,” Veriava said.

The charter's launch heard of a variety of problems that plague public schools. Toilets in many township and rural schools are in bad state, Trevor Mulaudzi, president of the South African Water and Sanitation Academy, said.

“Our children do not go to toilets at school because the toilets are filthy. [Teachers are] teaching a lot of constipated children. [Pupils] can't hear anything in class because the[ir] bladder says: 'I'm full'. Fixing toilets would be fixing a lot of [education] problems,” Mulaudzi said.

Children not in school
While the charter seems to highlight the conditions under which pupils learn, Themba Mabasa – a member of the National Association of School Governing Bodies – told the launch there was a “concern” about children not in school.

“We have a number of children in informal settlements who are not at school at all.” On teacher supply, the charter says the government's obligation is to “to provide a sufficient number of teachers”. The learner-teacher ratio should be 30:1 in grade R classes and 40:1 in other grades.

All allocated teacher posts, especially in rural areas, should be filled, according to the charter. Teachers at rural primary schools with multi-grade classes should also be trained on strategies required for teaching such classes.

The charter should not be seen as anti-government, warned Graeme Bloch, an independent education consultant who worked in the development of the charter. “We're working with the government,” he pointed out.

Mokate said the commission aims to “make as many people as possible aware of charter and make use of it”. Millions of copies will be distributed across the country, she said.

“Also, what the charter is doing is empowering the parents, the children, principals and educators about what they should expect. If you are a teacher you should expect teaching materials and equipment,” Mokate added.

Nikki Stein, an attorney at Section27 – an organisation well known for compelling the department of basic education to deliver textbooks to Limpopo schools last year – said the charter should reach every part of the country.

“The charter is not something to be discussed at a very abstract level. It actually defines the nitty-gritties of what we should expect about basic education, and it needs to be thoroughly communicated to all communities,” said Stein.

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