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Talking Justice: Equal Education in South Africa

What does the right to education mean, when high school students don’t have chairs or desks in their classrooms? When the windows are broken, or when there are no working toilets?

South Africa’s 1996 constitution promised basic education for all races—but the legacy of apartheid means that black children are still losing out to more prosperous whites in the competition for state resources. 

In this edition of Talking Justice, host James A. Goldston reports from Cape Town on a grassroots effort to address this division, and to turn the commitments of the1996 constitution into a reality.

Tshepo Motsepe, the general secretary of Equal Education, discusses his group’s creative activism and strategic litigation that led the government in 2013 to pass a law setting minimum infrastructure standards for South Africa’s schools. Equal Education’s continuing struggle to realize those standards presents a paradigm for those who hope to turn the promise of the law into social change, in South Africa and beyond. 

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Hello, I'm Jim Goldston of the Open Society Justice Initiative. In this edition of Talking Justice, we've come to South Africa to explore the role of law in fostering social change in a society still ridden with racial and economic inequalities.

Over the past quarter century, the world has seen great change, but few countries have undergone more far-reaching or positive transformation than South Africa. Once an apartheid state where whites ruled, today South Africa is a multiracial constitutional democracy. To be sure, the country has problems. There are continuing, if not growing gaps between rich and poor. Access to basic housing, water, and healthcare remains limited. And there is growing concern about corruption and poor governance. But the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle lives on in the vibrancy of South Africa's civil society and community organizations.


On a dusty road outside Cape Town, hundreds of teenaged schoolchildren march and chant, heading to a rally aimed at getting the government to fulfill a promise. In 2013, new regulations set minimum standards for all the nation's public schools; providing for electricity, running water, adequate toilets, libraries, and proper security. It was part of an effort to address the deep economic inequalities that persist long after the formal end of South Africa's segregationist apartheid system.


We lack resources—chairs, desk and stuff. So it can end a period. A period takes 45 minutes, so I can stay outside of the class for maybe 20 minutes, looking for a chair, and then I come to the class with 25 minutes only, and then when it's done, I don't even know what the teacher said first. I just come in the middle of the conversation and then it ends there.

Then tomorrow, the teacher's going to tell me that she is not going to repeat the same thing, so I've lost some time outside looking for a chair. That is supposed to be in school—a chair and a desk also. We don't have desks. We don't have chairs.


Lindo Kule is a 16-year-old student at school in Khayelitsha, a settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, where spatial apartheid remains firmly rooted in fact, if no longer in law. Khayelitsha was established in the 1980s under the apartheid regime for blacks only. Today, its black students study in public schools that lack the amenities of schools in the more prosperous, predominantly white areas near the center of the city.

Lindo complains of a lack of basic security, that thugs and gang members can enter the school to threaten students and steal from them. And when windows get broken, it takes months to repair them, leaving students in winter facing the cold wind whipping off the Cape Flats. These are fundamental problems that persist while the government fails to implement the 2013 regulations, despite protests by students such as Lindo.


So how far has South Africa come in the two decades since the country's democratic constitution came into force, back in 1996?


We are Equal Education, and this is our struggle. We are learners, teachers, parents, community members, and activists around the country, working together for an equal quality education system. Over five years ago, we started on a journey.

We fought for the government to fix our schools. At the time, it was hard to get government to focus on all schools in need, and to do so as quickly as they deserved, because there was no clear blueprint on what a school should look like. We wanted a law which would define what made a school a school. It would tell you the basic infrastructure a school needed to give learners a proper education. This law would be called the Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure.


Equal Education has campaigned fiercely for improved conditions in the nation's schools. Its grassroots operation includes groups of high school students like Lindo, the student we spoke to earlier, who call themselves "equalizers." Equal Education's elected secretary general is Tshepo Motsepe, one of the original founders.


One of the key things that apartheid did was to deny people their right to basic education by denying them adequate school infrastructure, by denying them water and sanitation in their schools, and that filtered all the way to how society is structured.

It denied people adequate education, limit their level of education, and then have a few people privileged enough to gain access to higher education all the way to whichever qualifications they wanted, but the vast majority deny them that possibility.


So what are the kinds of tactics and strategies that Equal Education employs to improve education here?


We learned quite a lot from the anti-apartheid movement: peaceful protests from the Civil Rights Movement in the States, of mass mobilization, peaceful protests. We organized sleep-ins outside Parliament. We've occupied, peacefully, government buildings to speak about the plight of education and to say that education in South Africa is in crisis.

But we've also taken what I would say is the fight for equality in South Africa to the powers that be. We desperately get ignored, which happens quite a lot. Our members have said, "Can we not then go to houses of some of these people? Can we not follow them?” Whether it's their favorite restaurant, where a couple of us would be outside, just standing there with our placards, whether it be a seminar in which they're addressing, just make sure that we get access into it—not to disrupt the proceedings, but just be present with our placards there.

It has mostly been that. But also, policy work; we've we're doing a lot of policy work, influencing policy discussions with our policy and research, using the law as well to filter through there, to see how we can influence policy with a real lived experiences of people, and how some of the policies that have been proposed will actually not work or will work, but they need to be shaped in this particular way.


Now Equal Education has been around for eight years at this point. To what extent do you feel that your work has achieved what you want so far?


That's a difficult one. One thing I can say is we've just scraped the surface. We've just done probably 10 percent of what really needs to be done, and what needs to be done for us is to [UNINTELLIGIBLE] large number of people in South Africa, but the state of inequality in the country, beyond education; to get them to understand that for this democracy to work their participate is needed, particularly the poor, the working class, and majority youth.

So for us, it is actually having a discussion, but actually formulating and having a movement that starts taking these issues forward in advancing the struggle for an equitable and just society, that not only is rooted in a constitution, but is a lived experience of our people.

Our people need to experience a democratic state. They need to experience the ideals and the promises that a democratic state advances or proposes to them. And for us, that's why I'm saying it's only probably 90 percent that needs to be done, because we feel that as the organization grows eight years later, there's this large demand of people saying, "How can we get involved in the discussions and the movement that you guys are trying to build?" So for us, I think we could declare victory once society and politicians and policymakers speak of a just society, not just in rhetoric, but saying, "This is how we're planning on going there."


The struggle against apartheid was world-renowned for the courage of people in putting bodies on the line for their freedom. I'm wondering, to what extent do young people in South Africa today are they aware of that struggle? To what extent do the lessons of that struggle influence the way that people are fighting for change within the new democracy today?


You know, Jim, the scars of apartheid are relived, I think, every day in all homes in South Africa. With the protests that we see in South Africa. South Africa experiences 11 protests every week, throughout the country, and eight out of those 11 protests turn violent; and by violent, I mean police shooting rubber bullets, in some cases live ammunition. That's people saying, "In my fight to get water"—in fact, those protests about basic services, water, sanitation, electricity, and proper housing that was promised by the State for the poor. And people have been blockading highways, people have been marching towards government buildings, people have put their bodies on the line to make their demands heard.

Now that, for me, is a transfer of what many people in apartheid did, not just by putting their bodies on the line, but putting their lives at risk of being killed. And most of them, we still don't know what happened to them. Their bodies were burnt or thrown in crocodile-infested rivers.

But in a democratic society, what you see now is that people are still saying, "We're willing to do that. We're willing to do that to get water." We've had many instances where the likes of Andries Tatane was was literally killed by beaten up with batons on live television.

And the people in that were fighting for water. And only now, last week, I was reading that the community there got water. And this chap was killed as a community leader on live television by policemen. And the community there was outraged that in our quest, in our fight for water, something which we are promised, something which is a basic human right, we have to die for us to receive it.

So, I think majority of the people, including our own members, understand that the possibility of our arrest is very high through disruption because protests, by nature, they're disruptive. The problem is how the State has been responding to those protests, particular to peaceful protests, and how they have not been able to speak to people about their reality of not being able to give water on time, which is unacceptable. But how do they engage communities? At what level does it escalate?



Last September and October, South Africa experienced violent protests at university campuses across the country, against a proposed increase in university and college fees for 2017, dubbed the Fees Must Fall movement. The government responded by withdrawing the proposed fee increase. Many of the young students taking part in the Fees Must Fall movement are themselves graduates of the Equal Education struggle.


Our main objective, our main goal is how do we carve a new generation of young people who value an equal society, who have a vision of what areas like college should look like and how we get there? And I agree, those are very deep political questions.

Are we up to the task? Like I said, we're also young people who are just envisioning a different type of society, not the current one that we're living in. We manage in a society where I have the opportunity to dream, but also to fulfill my ambitions, not being denied because of which family or strata of society I come from. Buut it should be up to me.

And those things should be taken into account if you're going to come and tell me that everyone has got a equal opportunity. But in a society like this one—it is so divided—that is not true. In fact, what those proponents of such an argument are saying is to negate the lived experience of people. So I think to a large extent, that's what we’re raising. And we are imagining a new society.


So, there you have it. In a world beset by conflict, terrorism, and increasing authoritarianism, it's easy to view South Africa's triumph of democracy over apartheid through rose-colored glasses. Reality is more complex.

And yet even up close, (BACKGROUND SINGING AND CLAPPING) South Africa's civil society activists inspire. By fighting to give meaning to the constitution's bold declarations, groups like Equal Education and others are striving to build a deeper democracy, one that hews to civil and political commitments while demanding the government do more and better in addressing poverty and inequality.

Law occupies an important place in this struggle, but it's not just any law, for many South Africans see their challenge to translate the pristine principles of judges and lawyers into commonsense ideas that all people can make their own. In this task, South Africa has much to teach the rest of the world.

I'm Jim Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. Please join me next time for another edition of Talking Justice, when we'll be talking about Latin America and the effort to end a long-running civil war in Colombia with a lasting and just peace. Thanks for listening.

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