When schools in the Vuwani district were set on fire during protests, 52 827 pupils could not attend school.
None of those who caused the disruptions, by means including resorting to arson and intimidation, were prosecuted for keeping the pupils out of school, just as nobody was ever held liable when, over the years, people protesting about electricity, housing or other service delivery issues prevented schooling in Mankweng, Tshwane, Soweto, Malamulele, Zeerust and Kuruman.
In fact, nobody has ever been prosecuted for disrupting schooling, as far as the South African Human Rights Commission can tell.
“The commission finds that no reported action has been taken against persons who deliberately interfere with the right to a basic education,” the commission said in an inquisitorial report on the impact of protests on basic education released on Thursday.
The commission wants that to change, and soon, and even wants an extended jail term for those found guilty of keeping children out of school to be considered.
The commission held hearings in June on how protests affect schooling. That was on the back of the Vuwani protests and the 29 schools that were set alight during a dispute over demarcation.
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But the problem goes well beyond Vuwani, it said on Thursday, and shows every sign of getting worse.
“Undermining basic education through the disruption of schools appears to be an effective mechanism to elicit immediate high-level government reaction. In terms of this reasoning, undermining the right to a basic education is seen as fair game and as a result the trend is on the increase,” the report reads.
Although the commission goes to great lengths to point out that peaceful protest is legal, democratic, constitutional, protected and generally legitimate, it has demanded the rapid creation of national infrastructure to stop the disruption of education.
By June next year, the commission said, it wants to see a progress report from a national public protest response team, a body that will operate nationally and provincially, and even locally when necessary, bringing together primarily the department of basic education and the South African Police Service (SAPS).
This body must have guidelines that include a promise that police will “prioritise the investigation and prosecution of actions that result in the disruption of basic education taking place or damage to state property at school”.
Interference with schooling currently carries a maximum six-month prison sentence, the commission said, but an amendment to increase this to serve as a deterrent should be considered.
It also wants the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs to “encourage traditional leaders to assist in preventing school disruptions from occurring”.
The SAPS told the commission that it did not have enough officers to protect the Vuwani schools, which were set on fire over several days, an excuse that got only a passing nod in the report before the commission went on to demand better from the police — and from all of government.
“While exceptional measures are required when the right to basic education is denied, government departments have not developed novel approaches to meet the challenge,” the report said.
The commission found “a slow or inadequate response” by government departments when schooling was disrupted, and confusion about who is responsible for what. That too must end, it said, and the department of basic education must take the lead in both setting up the new task team and making sure children can go to school.
“There is a responsibility placed on the department [of basic education] to be at the forefront of ensuring safety and security for learners, personnel, schools and associated property,” the commission said, and, although it must draw in the likes of the police for help, the responsibility remains with the department.
“It is, therefore, not unrealistic to expect the department to take preventative measures or work with other entities in order to safeguard the right to a basic education.
“The [department] has an obligation to ensure that it actively participates, and takes the lead, in all matters that affect basic education, particularly as the negative trend of disrupting basic education seems to be taking root in South Africa.”
The basic education and co-operative government departments and the police have three months to object to any of the recommendations in the report.