Noncedo Madubedube, the general secretary of Equal Education (EE), was first exposed to South Africa’s unequal education system at church.
She is the daughter of ministers in the Presbyterian Church of Africa in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, and there were Sundays when she attended services in school buildings because some of the church’s branches did not have a place of worship. It was at these schools that Madubedube, who attended a former model C school, would experience schools with poor infrastructure and appalling sanitation.
“We would go into schools in Zwide, New Brighton, Dasi and KwaMagxaki and all of these schools [were] in shocking conditions where clean toilets were like a luxury, school desks and furniture was shoddy; the boards were broken,” she says.
By the time she left high school she knew that not everyone had the same experience as her. “I came out of high school understanding my privilege, having gone to a school that … could afford to do certain things to support a conducive learning environment.”
In 2018, long after she left school, Madubedube became the general secretary of Equal Education, a social organisation that is at the forefront of fighting the inequalities in the basic education system. Perhaps one of the fights — in the many fights the EE has fought — that thrust the organisation into the spotlight was its 2012 case in the high court in Bhisho against Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga.
The organisation took Motshekga to court that year to get her to prescribe minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. Motshekga released the norms and standards in 2013.
That is also the year that Madubedube, who was a student at the University ofb Cape Town (UCT), first joined EE as a volunteer tutor and exposed to how the unequal education system plays out at university.
“The impact became so clear,” she says. “We were all sitting in the same lecturer venues but abanye abantu were failing computer literacy classes, for example. Our lecturers predominantly rattled off in quite advanced English jargon, which was hectic. Some of us were playing catch-up. So that’s how the impact of the things I saw in church and how those young folks fought hard to get a spot at UCT.”
Because of these experiences, Madubedube and her friends decided that they wanted to do something, even if it was small, for the township learners who were not exposed to quality education and would later have to pay catch-up at university.
They joined groups at university that tutored learners and coached sports at schools in Khayelitsha and Nyanga. This arrangement still unsettled her.
“We would leave UCT under the mountain and you would go into a school in Khayelitsha or Nyanga to tutor learners for an hour and a half and you get on the bus and drive back to the mountain. So I often felt like … look, we are giving back time, sure, but we are not doing anything structurally to shift things for these learners because they go back to the same classrooms, they go back to the homes in the township.”
When she joined EE in 2012 Madubedube was not just a tutor, but also a facilitator and provided sociopolitical education for learners who were members of the organisation. Learners were taught about white papers, the process of public hearings to inform policy changes and what school infrastructure meant, among other things.
“It was just, like, wild … Often I would leave those spaces deeply elated and often just crying and not sad crying, but because young people are typically uninterested sometimes … they work on their own steam so you never know whether you are going to get them to do anything,” she says.
“But these young folks, because of the agency in the room or in the air, you did not have to ask them twice to do anything. They were self-governing, self-determining, super-careful with each other, they loved each other and we were always in song. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”
In 2016, Madubedube was formally employed at the EE as a trainer and political education developer. She also held the position of the deputy head of organising and later became the head in the Western Cape.
She says it was organising in the province that prepared her for the position she currently occupies. It was during that time that she navigated the parliamentary portfolio committee of basic education, district officials, provincial departments of education officials as well as political leaders. She also spent a lot of time building bases inside the EE’s branches.
“There is no better place than EE to learn the ideal of being able to build a movement and consolidate the gains of a post-democratic activism and use that to never shut up,” she says. “If anything, it mobilises us around the idea that we can, in fact, be the people that inform the future because we are young now and what happens has a direct impact on our livelihoods.”
But Madubedube says she had to learn the hard way that the change the organisation seeks in the sector is a progression.
She says it is the generosity of older activists, such as people who organised in the United Democratic Front and who shared their experiences, that some of the things the EE fought for were achieved over the years.
“There is despondency because it is difficult to operate inside the institutions but there is also that deep hope that asihambi sodwa, that there are others before who have sown the seed,” she says.
Madubedube has a few months to go before she finishes her three-year term as the head of the EE. She says she has lost so much hair during this period but still has energy to contribute to the organisation in any role.
“My reflection of the past three years is that there is still potential, we are going to fuck shit up … We have learned that the things that we want to see change are going to be sustained with movement building and sustained building of relationships,” says Madubedube.