In his recent State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma declared that education was an "apex priority" for the government. But for such a declaration to have any effect it must be accompanied by a clear and comprehensive road map for the reform of basic education. It must also engage existing efforts in the same cause.
Last year, three high-profile legal cases aimed at improving educational quality resulted in court-ordered reform. Yet in each of these cases, the department of basic education appeared to resist strict compliance with the court orders.
The first was the Limpopo textbook debacle. In May, non-governmental organisation Section27 launched its case to compel the department to deliver textbooks to grades R, one, two, three and 10 and to develop and implement a catch-up plan for grade 10 pupils.
Despite a court order vindicating the claims of Section27 and the judgment being widely hailed as a victory for pupils' rights, the order did not immediately result in the relief that was sought. Instead, Section27 was forced to return to court on two other occasions.
It took another two court orders, the last in October 2012, before textbook delivery for the year was completed and the government committed to a substantive catch-up plan that included extra tuition.
Was it really wasteful?
Throughout the Limpopo textbook litigation, the basic education department characterised the case as wasteful and unnecessary. It even placed a full-page advertisement in Sunday newspapers describing the litigation as being "unnecessary and a waste of valuable time and resources".
The second case was that of the Centre for Child Law & Other v Minister of Basic Education & Others. The Centre for Child Law and a group of schools in the Eastern Cape, represented by the Legal Resources Centre, sought to compel the department to fill teaching and non-teaching posts at schools in the province. The shortage of teachers had hampered teaching and learning at these schools. In July 2012 the court ordered the department to fill all temporary vacant posts by September 2012 and to make the posts permanent by December.
The department was also ordered to reimburse school governing bodies that had been forced to pay the salaries of temporary teachers.
However, reports earlier this year suggest that the department is in contempt of court and has failed to abide by the order. Only a small number of temporary posts have been filled and none of those posts has been made permanent. It was also reported that none of the school governing bodies had been reimbursed.
The third case was Equal Education's suit to compel policy reform by requiring the basic education minister to develop regulations for norms and standards for school infrastructure. The government opposed the case until the 11th hour, at which stage it agreed to draft the regulations.
The agreement reached between the parties was made an order of court in November last year.
Although there was apparent compliance with the court order in that the regulations were published in draft form in January this year, the content of the regulations are devoid of substance and are unlikely to bear fruit.
The department's failure to abide by court orders undermines the potential for the transformation of basic education and the rule of law. An assumption that there should be such adherence is at the very essence of the checks and balances that we would expect to assist in advancing South Africa's rights-based constitutional democracy.
In the State of the Nation address, Zuma's one concrete proposal in the 11 minutes he committed to education was the establishment of a presidential commission to investigate the remuneration and conditions of service of all state employees but especially those of teachers.
This proposal was made by way of clarifying, or perhaps revising, ANC statements about declaring education an "essential service".
Zuma said: "By saying education is an essential service we are not taking away the constitutional rights of teachers as workers such as the right to strike. It means we want the education sector and society as a whole to take education more seriously … All successful societies have one thing in common: they invested in education. Decent salaries and conditions of service will play an important role in attracting, motivating and retaining skilled teachers."
Improving teaching conditions and thereby motivating teachers, rather than watering down their collective rights, is in principle not a bad thing, but it is not the panacea that will address the many ills in the education system.
In the absence of a committed plan for education reform, a potentially useful road map is the South African Human Rights Commission's Charter of Children's Basic Education Rights, published in January this year following a public participation process. It maps out the scope and nature of the obligations of the government for fulfilling its commitments on the right to basic education.
What the Charter does
The charter analyses what steps the government has taken, or will need to take, to meet its obligations. Concerning textbooks, for instance, it acknowledges the government's obligation to provide basic learning and teaching materials in a "timely fashion". This "must include one textbook" for every pupil "for every subject".
An important intervention that arose from the Limpopo textbook case was the presidential task team. One of its recommendations was the development of a national policy to standardise the procurement and distribution of learning and teaching materials. Given the persistence of reports of schools not receiving textbooks this year, this recommendation is crucial.
The charter also notes both the state's obligation to provide sufficient, safe, functional educational institutions and the significant infrastructure backlogs and inequities in access to basic services at schools. It therefore views it as critical that the norms and standards be pro-mulgated and complied with by the provinces.
The government has programmes such as the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative to address infrastructural backlogs. But in provinces such as the Eastern Cape, where these programmes are needed most, budgets for this initiative were largely unspent last year. This suggests that, without norms and standards to guide infrastructural development in the provinces, such programmes run a risk of failing.
The problems in education in South African are manifold and civil society organisations have provided useful insights on how to address some of them.
What is needed now is for the government to embrace these processes and implement the necessary reforms to ensure that education is treated as an "apex priority" in both words and deeds.
Faranaaz Veriava is a human rights lawyer. She writes a monthly column in these pages on the right to basic education