We have witnessed a continuous stream of broader societal ills playing out throughout our school system, ranging from general violence to sexual harassment, abuse, corporal punishment, substance abuse and multiple forms of discrimination and intolerance.
Although schools are essentially microcosms of the society in which they are based, the school system provides perhaps one of the greatest opportunities to address these perpetual issues, reaching about 13-million people directly each year, and countless others indirectly.
If we are to create a more peaceful, tolerant and equal society, the education system serves as a key opportunity for intervention. To combat violence and intolerance, we require a sustained commitment from government, effective laws and policies, and proper implementation — but we also require a substantive shift in the national mind-set.
Human Rights Day has come and gone, but it’s never too late to celebrate the achievements in South Africa’s public education sector and its role in driving an awareness of constitutional values and the realisation of rights.
Our education system is often the subject of extreme public scrutiny and criticism. But, apart from the multiple shortfalls of the system, it is important to recognise the significant achievements that have been made in utilising the public education system as a key platform for the realisation of rights — across the board.
In 2008, all education ministers in the South African Development Community adopted a resolution to launch an initiative known as the Care and Support for Teaching and Learning, as a holistic initiative aimed at ensuring quality basic education for all. This initiative aims to address the serious barriers that affect access to, and success within, the school system itself.
Through an integrative system of co-operative governance, this programme seeks to provide access to a myriad basic services and fundamental rights, including access to healthcare, social welfare services, assistance in obtaining documentation, transportation and adequate nutrition, among others.
In December 2011, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training was adopted, which recognises the importance of infusing human rights and democratic values into the education system.
Additionally, one of the key indicators of the fourth sustainable development goal on education is to ensure all learners are provided with the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including through education on human rights, gender equality, cultural diversity and the promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence.
Education is recognised by the international community as an essential mechanism for the protection, promotion and fulfilment of human rights. It provides essential skills for personal development by influencing the way we interact with one another, and how we see the world, and it creates a more informed and active citizenry, while providing people with the knowledge to challenge and combat harmful behaviour and prejudices. What we learn in schools, therefore, goes far beyond academic subject matter.
The department of basic education (DBE), working together with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and other partners, has launched an extensive Life Orientation Textbooks Project, to develop textbooks for grade four to grade 12 learners, in which human rights form one of 12 core themes.
The DBE has also embarked on a Teaching for All initiative by partnering with universities, among others, to develop inclusive education training modules, which include a human rights core module for teachers. In this way, schools will become inclusive environments, where learners will not only be taught about human rights values, but will ultimately experience them as well.
The next step is that, for the first time in 2019, all grade 10 learners in public schools across the country will write a compulsory essay based on a topical human rights issue. This initiative will now be closely linked with the National Schools Moot Court Competition, which has recently been taken over by the SAHRC, in collaboration with the DBE and the department of justice as a flagship programme for human rights education.
Even within this progressive programme of inter-departmental collaboration, there are still some serious challenges — the ongoing crisis of adequate water and sanitation in schools being one.
There remains a significant amount of work to be done, and there are many potential shortfalls and ongoing crises facing our education system.
It is true that an infusion of human rights and constitutional values into the curriculum is not a magical key to instantly resolve the multiple social crises facing the country, but it is certainly a very crucial first step in tackling some of the most profound social issues of our time, by defining the moral compass of our future generations and empowering people to access and enforce their rights.
André Gaum is a commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission. Eden Esterhuizen is his research adviser.