Academics and activists are preparing to take the government to court to ensure that the rights of all children to basic education becomes a reality. The legal action is to be launched by the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa on behalf of the Public Participation in Education Network.
The institute’s director, advocate Paul Hoffman SC, said he expected “the mother and father of all court cases” as he led the charge to hold the Basic Education Department accountable for failing to deliver on the promise enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Hoffmann outlined the group’s plans for the public interest litigation at the Southern African Heads of Independent Schools Association (Sahisa) in Durban this week.
While NGOs, such as Equal Education and Section 27, lock legal horns with Minister Angie Motshekga over norms and standards for schools, and the Limpopo textbook saga, the action spearheaded by Hoffman will go beyond a “single issue” case.
He argued that schools in the three lower quintiles – those of the townships, rural areas and former homelands – were providing a “babysitting” service rather than educating pupils.
Citing statistics from the research of economist Nic Spaull and others, Hoffman said that in 1996, 1.19 million six-year-old black children started Grade 1. Twelve years later, 278 000 were awarded a Grade 12 certificate.
But only 42 000 of those |278 000 were able to pass a post-matric functional literacy test.
“We cannot go on like this. It’s impossible. We are setting ourselves up to become a failed state if we neglect what’s needed in the lower three quintiles,” Hoffman said.
And that, he believed, was “a little bit of accountability... perhaps a lot”.
As well as arguing for pupils to be educated in their mother tongue up until at least Grade 6, Hoffman revealed that his scope would include school infrastructure, and the professionalisation of public school teachers.
“It involves doing something about our friends, Sadtu (the SA Democratic Teachers Union), thinking they can strike whenever they like,” Hoffman hinted.
“We’re also going to tackle the two-hump camel,” he said, contending that SA had two education systems.
The suggestion was that having one set of policies for all schools was “inappropriate”.
Hoffman did, however, give the government credit for undertaking the “Herculean” task of restructuring post-apartheid education by converting 14 separate systems of education into one.
“A lot of good work has been done. The problem today is there’s too much experimenting and not enough emphasis on the basics.”
Hoffman said the application would be launched in the Northern Cape High Court, and was set to institute proceedings within a month.
Late Struggle veteran and academic Neville Alexander was a member of the network, as is John Samuel, the adviser to the vice-chancellor of the University of Free State, Jonathan Jansen.
Samuel affirmed that quality of education was tied to access to education.
“There’s no point to children being in school if they’re not adequately educated.”
Samuel believed it was “primarily the absence of political will on the part of government” that was at the root of the failure to improve the education system.
Enver Motala, of the Mandela Institute for Rural Education and Development at the University of Fort Hare, said the network had been born of the concern which people such as he, Alexander, Samuel and others shared on the crisis in the public schooling system.
It would also focus on how the quality of public schooling was becoming “increasingly differentiated between rich and poor kids”, and the need for a new and more publicly engaged discussion beyond the “yearly charade around matric results”.
Motala said that it had become necessary to intervene, through the courts, for the government to do what was required to provide good quality public education.