/ 30 January 2022

Quantifying the right to read and write

Graphic Edu Readwrite Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

South African society has one supreme law that stands over and above all others: the Constitution. It is the body of fundamental principles that outlines the legal foundation for the existence of our republic and states the rights and duties of its citizens and those we elect to govern us. One of those fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution is that: “Everyone has the right to a basic education”, per section 29(1)(a).

In many senses this particular right is a special right in the Constitution and different from many others since it is “immediately realisable”. Unlike the other socioeconomic rights in the Constitution – such as the rights to housing, to healthcare, to food, water, and further education – there is no inherent qualification to the right to a basic education. 

There is nothing that says the state must work towards the “progressive realisation” of the right to a basic education, or that the realisation of the right to a basic education is “subject to available resources”. There are only two socioeconomic rights in the entire Constitution that are not subject to such limitations and progressive realisation, and these are: the right to a basic education and children’s core socioeconomic rights to “basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services” in terms of section 28(1)(c) of the Constitution. 

There is rationality in not subjecting these rights to limitations and progressive realisation. In their wisdom, the drafters of the Constitution recognised that in addition to other necessary measures of redress, it was only through the systematic prioritisation of the next generation that South Africa would be able to transcend the multifaceted and far-reaching consequences of apartheid. 

When the South African Constitution was being written, it was expressly noted and understood that education would hold a privileged place in the new democratic dispensation. Neither redress nor prosperity would be possible without it. The Constitution’s mandate to “free the potential of each person” was contingent on the realisation of this right for all who live in the country. 

As constitutional court Justice Bess Nkabinde ruled in Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School v Essay: ‘‘The significance of education, in particular basic education, for individual and societal development in our democratic dispensation in the light of the legacy of apartheid, cannot be overlooked … [B]asic education is an important socioeconomic right directed, among other things, at promoting and developing a child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to his or her fullest potential. Basic education also provides a foundation for a child’s lifetime learning and work opportunities.” 

While the unqualified right to a basic education has not been legally contested, it is still not entirely clear what is (and is not) included when one speaks about a “basic education”. The Constitution itself does not provide an explication of this right which specifies how it is to be realised and what conditions would need to be met for this right to be said to have been realised or not.

One of the minimum “core” outcomes with respect to the right to a basic education is that a child must be able to read and write with understanding at a basic level by the age of 10. Put differently, this fundamental skill is one of the tools by means of which the constitutional promise is to be fulfilled. Unless and until the child is educated to the requisite minimum level, the constitutional promise remains unfulfilled. 

What the education space needs is a clearly articulated, evidence-based, and measurable definition of what it means to “read and write, with understanding, at a basic level”. Although it is clear that the right to a basic education envisaged in the Constitution goes well beyond merely the ability to read and write, it is equally clear that if a child is denied this most basic skill (to read and write with understanding) they have at the same time, also been denied the right to a basic education.

To this end, the South African Human Rights Commission launched a Right to Read and Write Campaign in September last year. This campaign speaks to the specification of minimum outcomes that must be met and the minimum set of knowledge, skills and dispositions that a child must possess by age 10 for the ability  to read and write, as a central component of the right to a basic education, to be said to have been realised.

*This opinion piece contains extracts from a position paper developed by the South African Human Rights Commission in collaboration with experts in the fields of law, education; economics, disability and literacy.