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Open the doors of learning and culture now

Fifty years ago this month, the Freedom Charter boldly proclaimed for all to know: The doors of learning and culture shall be opened. It contains one of the best formulations of the right to education evident today:

Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children;

Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit;

Adult illiteracy shall be ended by a mass state education plan;

Teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens;

The colour bar in cultural life, sport and education shall be abolished.

These statements continued to inform later developments, including the reconstruction and development programme (RDP), which called for the democratic government to restructure education and training so that it meets the needs of all and provides schooling for at least 10 years.

In 1994 the African National Congresss election manifesto was endorsed by 12-million votes and saw the ANC winning a 62,65% majority in Parliament. In part, lawmakers voted for one education system that provides 10 years of free and compulsory education for all children.

But the right to education has been severely compromised in South Africa over the years. I am sad to say that, while recent announcements regarding fees by the education authorities are welcome, they do not go far enough. The question remains: Why have we not realised the right to education when so many of our policies and laws have agreed on it?

I believe big mistakes were made early on in the development of the education policy back in 1994. Our education policy and strategies were not guided by the RDP, but by the Hunter committee. The committee was tasked by the ministry of education to set out a national framework of school organisation and ownership, and norms and standards on school governance and funding which are likely to command the widest possible public support, accord with the requirements of the Constitution, improve the quality and effectiveness of schools, and be financially sustainable from public funds.

The committees report, released in 1995, recommended that public schools be totally or largely funded from the public purse, representing a partnership between the provincial government and the community. It also recommended that school governing bodies (SGBs) be formed in all schools by 1997, as parents have a primary responsibility for the education of their children although their rights are not absolute. When the policy framework was concluded later on, SGBs were empowered to determine whether fees should be paid and how much they should be.

On funding, the committee recognised that achieving per capita equity in the funding of schools is a key component in meeting the governments commitment to free and compulsory education. However, in the context of the present budgetary constraints, it is not possible, in the short term, to achieve this without severe disruption in the provision of education, especially in the well-resourced schools. The committees solution was to recommend that public schools, at least for the next five years, should be funded on the basis of a partnership approach, which balances the four key principles of equity, redress, quality and efficiency.

The die was cast: the committees report influenced White Papers that eventually resulted in the South African Schools Act.

The 1999 ANC election manifesto continued to talk of education not as a privilege, but as a right, and the ANC is committed to moving as rapidly as possible to free, dynamic and compulsory education. But less and less is said about free education in later manifestos.

In his recent Budget speech, Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel makes provision for fee exemptions — not free education — as a passage into schools for poor people of school-going age. However, as part of the Commission for Africa, internationally he correctly calls for the abolishment of user fees by asking for:

Donors and African governments to meet their commitments made in Dakar, Senegal, in April 2000 to achieve education for all, ensuring that every child in Africa goes to school. Donors should provide an additional $7-billion to $8-billion a year as African governments develop comprehensive national plans to deliver quality education.

African governments to remove school fees for basic education, and donors to fund this until countries can afford these costs themselves.

The Global Campaign for Education–South Africa believes this same provision must be realised locally. For starters, all primary schools must become fee-free zones.

The 50th anniversary of the Freedom Charter is an opportunity for South Africa to recommit to free education and the right to education, as espoused in our Constitution. Then, and only then, will poor learners not be forced to parade their poverty before a means testing policy, which is what exemptions really are.

Hassen Lorgat is media and communications manager for the South African National NGO Coalition and secretary of the Global Campaign for Education — South Africa

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