Courts: Plan B for South Africa’s Education Advocates


What makes a school, a school?

Is it bricks, books, and toilets? Laboratories and a hot lunch? Or can a teacher— lecturing outside, under a tree, without a blackboard or chalk—be a school, too?

In South Africa, these questions go unanswered.

Twenty years have passed since the fall of Apartheid’s brutal system of segregation. Stark inequality, however, remains alive and well in South Africa’s education system.

South Africa’s constitution has the most comprehensive protection of human rights on the African continent, including liberal measures like the right to reproductive health care and same-sex marriage. Enormous wealth disparity and an unemployment rate of 24.4%, however, belie ink-and-paper promises of equality and support a very different image of opportunity in South Africa.

At the root of this disparity? Education.

During Apartheid, the National Party created 10 Bantustans, or “homelands,” around the Eastern Cape as territories. The homelands were designated for those of different black ethnicities. Outside of the Bantustans, townships of all non-whites formed on the periphery of white cities.

Equal Education, an NGO with a mission to lessen educational inequalities, reports that, among all South African schools, 3,544 have no electricity, 2,402 have no water supply, and 913 lack toilets. Just as many schools lack non-material items integral to education, thing like teachers and functioning administration. At one school in Eastern Cape, the principal was absent from the school for over nine months.

Shaped by a legacy of inequality, the vast majority of underserved schools are in townships or the former Bantustans.


I met Jeremy Van Wyk on his first day out of prison. He was standing on an abandoned bridge in the city of Cape Town. Behind him, a pile of tarps and blankets were propped haphazardly against a cement barrier on the asphalt. “That,” he said, pointing at the jumble, “is my home.”

Jeremy’s troubled story, like so many others like him, begins with deprivation of the education promised to him. Jeremy grew up in a township. His parents pulled him out of school when he was a child to help support the family.

“My father made me beg for money at the robots [streetlights] for my family. My parents didn’t give me the chance to go to school,” he said. No one at the school followed up when he stopped attending.

As a young teenager, Jeremy became involved with petty crime. He later turned to dealing drugs for Tanzanian immigrants to support himself.

“I said to myself, I don’t have a future—I dropped out of school in grade two.” Jeremy was sentenced to two years in jail, and unless he is an exemption to statistics, is likely to return. In a market saturated with unskilled laborers, what opportunities exist for Jeremy— a man with a record, a man who reads at a grade two level and cannot write?

“Everyone” the constitution states, “has the right to a basic education.” The elaborations end—or rather, fail to begin—there. In 2007, Parliament passed an amendment to the South African Schools Act demanding the creation of Norms and Standards, a set of basic infrastructural requirements a school must fulfill to adequately function.

After all, until the government defines what a “basic education” is, how can people know if their children are being deprived of one?

Six years have passed. No standards have been made into law.

The most significant advances made for education in that time, in fact, has not been made through legislation at all. Having solicited only excuses and thumb-twiddling from politicians, many advocates have moved the battle against educational inequalities to a new arena— away from the picket lines and into the court room.

Politicians and parliament can ignore letters and protests, but a court cannot ignore a case brought before it. When a girl was refused schooling in the Western Cape because she word dreadlocks in accordance with her Rastafarian beliefs, or when multiple girls in the Free State were refused schooling because they had become pregnant, local education departments did nothing to rectify the violations of constitutional rights. Instead, these students had to seek justice in the courtroom, each of their cases confirming the existence of rights clearly established by the South African constitution.

Equal Education has now taken Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to court several times, demanding that she follow through with the creation of the Norms and Standards. Initially, the Minister attempted to placate Equal Education by creating a list of guidelines, suggestions for schools that held no capacity for enforcement. After further court proceedings, Minister Motshekga finally agreed to create binding Norms and Standards by May 2013. After many delay tactics and the expiration of the deadline, Equal Education took Minister Motshekga to court—again—earlier this month. The court issued a court order demanding the completion of the Norms and Standards by September of 2013.

The creation of standards, of course, does not guarantee their actualization. Creating baseline requirements—for the acceptable number of students per class, days of leave given to administrators, publishing date of a textbook—is an important start.

Yesterday, I went with some members of a community media project to Nyanga, a largely undeveloped township outside the city of Cape Town, to interview people about recent gang violence. Kicking up dust as we drove through a labyrinth of clotheslines and tin shacks, we arrived at Oscar Mpetha High, school to most members of the two clashing gangs.

Although we were only a couple minutes early to interview the principal about the violence between his students, the school appeared empty. After nearly ten minutes, a receptionist appeared. Hearing of our appointment, she pursed her lips and stalked off. Ten minutes later, she returned.

“You’ll have to wait,” she said, herding us into a cubic, salmon-colored room, the fourth wall (and only entrance) of which was a floor to ceiling barred gate.

Every ten minutes or so, Pharie, one of the project members, would leave our little pink holding cell to rap on the receptionist window and ask about the holdup. When she was in, the receptionist would scuttle out from some dark corner and give a new reason why the principal was, once again, still too busy to see us. Several times she did not come to the window at all.

Thirty minutes passed. I looked left, then right. The hallways were deserted. We were the only people left in the school.

After forty-five minutes and a series of increasingly ambiguous excuses from the receptionist, we left. Passing through streets lined with women frying slabs of meat and hair shops set up in old shipping crates, we came to the home neighborhood of the student gangsters.

We pulled up to the arranged site to interview the gang members—a small shack painted sea foam green. A girl in a school uniform was plopped in the doorway, drawing with her finger in a patch of dirt. Speaking Xhosa, Pharie asked her where the gang members were.

The girl ran inside and returned with her mother. “They have gone,” the woman told us. She glanced down at the boxy cell phone in her hand. “You said four o’clock,” she said.

Waiting nearly an hour for the school principal, we had missed our appointment. The gangsters, we learned, had been right on time.

Amelia Earnest ’14 is blogging this summer from South Africa. Contact her at