My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
A report that a countrywide assessment of grade 3 and grade 6 pupils has revealed shockingly low levels of literacy and numeracy amongst South African school children comes as no surprise. Given the fact that vast disparities remain between the conditions in most township and rural schools on the one hand and most suburban schools on the other and given the fact that many teachers remain underqualified and demotivated, the assessment merely confirmed what we already knew, namely that our education system is in deep crisis.
According to the report, the national average performance in grade 3 for literacy was 35%, and 28% for numeracy. The Western Cape scored the highest with 43% for literacy and 36% for numeracy. Mpumalanga came last with pupils scoring an average 27% and 19% respectively.
Does this mean that our government is in breach of its constitutional duty – guaranteed in section 29(1)(a) of the Constitution – to provide everyone with at least basic education?
As I pointed out before, the Constitutional Court has not yet had the opportunity to provide a definitive interpretation of the scope and content of the obligations placed on the state by section 29(1)(a). However, in Governing Body of the Juma Musjid Primary School and Others v Essay and Others the Constitutional Court – in a judgment handed down earlier this year and authored by Justice Bess Nkabinde – discussed the content of this right in the context of an application to evict a public school conducted on private property.
Justice Nkabinde pointed out that the right to “a basic education” under section 29(1)(a) – unlike some of the other socio-economic rights – “is immediately realisable” as there is no internal limitation requiring that the right be “progressively realised” within “available resources” subject to “reasonable legislative measures”. The right to a basic education in section 29(1)(a) may be limited only in terms of a law of general application which is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom”.
But what are the obligations of the state to ensure that it provides basic education immediately to everyone? Because this case dealt with the eviction of a school from private property and not with the question of whether the unequal provision of often substandard education breached section 29(1)(a), the Constitutional Court did not expressly answer this question. However, it did make the following pertinent remarks about the right to education:
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. The inadequacy of schooling facilities, particularly for many blacks was entrenched by the formal institution of apartheid, after 1948, when segregation even in education and schools in South Africa was codified. Today, the lasting effects of the educational segregation of apartheid are discernible in the systemic problems of inadequate facilities and the discrepancy in the level of basic education for the majority of learners….
Indeed, basic education is an important socio-economic 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. To this end, access to school – an important component of the right to a basic education guaranteed to everyone by section 29(1)(a) of the Constitution – is a necessary condition for the achievement of this right.
As I read it, this passage reminds us that the provision of basic education to all is closely linked to the protection of the human dignity of every child. Children who are not provided with a basic minimum standard of education will probably never reach their full potential and will not have the opportunities provided to those children who were provided with access to basic education in better resourced and functioning schools.
This right – so it seems to me – becomes more potent when it is linked to the right to equality and non-discrimination (guaranteed in section 9 of the Constitution), which our courts have argued is also closely linked to the protection of the human dignity of all. Where the state provides shockingly unequal education to children and when this inequality is largely based on the race of the children, the state may well be failing to meet its commitments in terms of section 29(1), read with the obligations imposed by section 9 of the Bill of Rights.
Maybe the time has come to approach the Constitutional Court to challenge the failure of the state to take adequate measures that will begin to address the vastly unqequal education experience of children in South Africa.
As the Constitutional Court pointed out, the Minister of Basic Education and the various MEC’s of basic education have “a positive obligation in terms of the Constitution to ‘respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights'”.” Where it can be demonstrated that the Minister or MEC’s had not taken decisive steps to address the inequality in our education system and may have been at best indifferent to the problem and at worst may have made the situation worse, a breach of the Constitution would surely be found to have occurred.
In the Juma Masjid case, the Constitutional Court found that the MEC for basic education had not complied with these constitutional obligations as she had failed to pay the private landowners on which the school was situated the arrear rentals and maintenance expenses incurred by those owners. In the affidavit before the High Court in this case, the MEC pointed out that she is acutely aware of the state’s constitutional obligations and undertook to pay all outstanding rentals and any amount payable in respect of expenditure incurred in maintaining the building, provided that certain legal requirements were met. As Justice Nkabinde remarked – perhaps in exasperation – “[t]hese undertakings came to naught”.
The Constitutional Court also pointed out that the authorities had a constitutional duty to place relevant evidence, including a plan setting out the details of how she was going to provide alternative education to the affected learners, before the Court, something she had failed to do. The Court endorsed the view expressed by the judge in the High Court judgment that:
It is unacceptable for the State to fail to put up relevant information and more importantly to take steps to comply with its constitutional obligations where a dispute pertains to the relevant State department’s performance of its constitutional mandate. Much time and effort has been wasted due to, it seems, the [MEC’s] failure to deal decisively with the issue of the continued occupation by the school of the property on terms mutually acceptable . . . . If the parties could not agree on mutually acceptable terms, then the [Department] should have taken steps a long time ago to make alternative arrangements, but to at least deal with the issue. If that was done in accordance with the provisions of the Act with proper regard to the department’s constitutional mandate, then the need for the present application would probably never have arisen.
The Constitutional Court therefore found that the MEC was in breach of her constitutional duties.
In the light of the shocking results of the assessment report, the Minister and MEC’s surely have a duty to explain what steps are being taken to improve the situation in order to address the unconstitutional inequality in the provision of education to our children. More pertinently, the Minister and MEC’s have to explain what the department is doing to address the vast disparities in the standard of education of mostly white suburban kids and mostly black township and rural kids. What plans are in place and how are they being implemented?
Are steps being taken to lure better qualified and better paid teachers to these schools and if not why not? Are steps being taken to improve the qualifications and the performance of underqualified and underperforming teachers and if not why not? Why are there still 900 schools without toilets? Why do many children – usually in the poorest parts of the country – often do not have access to textbooks?
It would be revealing to see whether the assessment report indicates which schools and which areas have the best and the worst literacy and numeracy results? I would bet that the schools serving the poorest sections of the community, schools with the worst infrastructure and the worst paid teachers, and schools with governance problems and lack of leadership, would probably have produced the worst results. The question is what is going to be done to address this. Mere hand-wringing will no longer do. While it has much to answer for, merely passing the buck by blaming Sadtu, will also not suffice.
Surely we cannot continue with the present system where most white kids and those black kids whose parents can afford the school fees get a relatively decent education while the poorest kids get an education that is so inadequate that it would not meet the minimum requirements for the provision of basic education? Perhaps it is time for civil society to begin gathering evidence about these failures, to begin a campaign to mobilise parents and children in support of equal education and to put pressure on the government with threats of constitutional litigation and – as a last resort – actual constitutional litigation.
The NGO Equal Education seems to be doing good work in this regard, but it seems to me it needs to begin thinking of launching constitutional litigation as part of its mobilisation effort to ensure that all children in South Africa get access to at least basic education. Courts cannot fix our education system. But we have seen that threats of litigation and actual litigation can spur on the lethargic politicians and bureaucrats to do what they are constitutionally obliged to do.
I will gladly donate some of my time to help work on such a case. To the barricades and to the courts, I say!BACK TO TOP