Inching towards a distant dream

History was made last month when the Education Rights Project (ERP), which began its work in February, was formally launched at Wits University in Johannesburg.

The first such project in the world, the ERP is intent on pressuring the Department of Education (DoE) to meet its Constitutional obligation to the unqualified right to provide free and equal basic education to all.

Present at the launch was Katarina Tomasevski, special rapporteur on education for the United Nations (UN). Her insights into the status of basic education as a ‘right” in various corners of the world helps to put our own education system in a global context.

An important point made by Tomasevski is the shift in recent years in the UN’s thinking about education. Instead of being seen as a fundamental human right, basic education has been reinterpreted as a ‘development objective”. The crucial difference is that it is implicitly accepted in this approach that not everyone will be lucky enough to access basic education. It is seen as enough just making inroads into the educational backlogs that exist globally.

This ‘lottery approach” to education (as Tomasevski puts it) is not what South Africans expect in our own country. Our Constitution is one important expression of the fact that you don’t have to be rich or plain lucky to get a fair shot at education.

But the mere existence of an ERP in our country clearly indicates that free and accessible basic education for all is still a distant dream. Four areas identified by the ERP as major obstacles to tackle are poor school infrastructures, conditions at farm schools, sexual offences against learners and school fees. Their task will be to interract with affected communities to bring together substance on which legal action can be brought against the DoE for failing to fulfil its constitutional obligations.

It’ll be interesting to watch the affect the ERP has on the DoE’s stances over the next few years. Already, the Minister of Education Kader Asmal recently expressed concern about the issue of school fees as a cause for exclusion — enough to call for a review of the school fee policy.

This is indeed a positive sign for the future. But real progress may take some time. Tomasevski drew a useful parallel with the experience in India of making education an accessible and enforceable human right. It took five years, but the law was altered and school fees abolished — in spite of protests about the expense from detractors in the government.

And as Tomasevski so astutely pointed out, ‘If the government of India can afford nuclear bombs, it should be able to afford and provide basic education.”

If our own government decides to enter a plea of poverty to defend its failure to provide free and accessible basic education, I think all of us could suggest some areas where they could make savings. We could minimise spending on defence, cut down on expensive international summits, do away with presidential jets …

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