In the not-so-distant past, denial of basic education to non-white citizens was a pillar of South Africa’s apartheid state.  The goal of “Bantu education” was to isolate and subjugate the black population, prevent the spread of “subversive” ideas, and prepare black students to provide labor for a white-run economy and society.  Recognizing that this system had to be eradicated if South Africa was to truly transform itself, the right to education was enshrined in the country’s new constitution during the transition to majority rule.  Basic education for all South Africans would be an immediately realizable right, essential to overcome decades of legalized discrimination and to ensure meaningful participation in a democratic society.

But absent clear standards and specific guidance about what a quality education means, the country has struggled to provide such education to most of its citizens.

Chairs are scattered and turned over everywhere in a school in South Africa.
A school in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Photo courtesy of Equal Education

According to the Department of Basic Education, as of 2011, of the 24,793 public schools in South Africa: 14% have no electricity; 10% have no water supply; 46% use pit-latrine toilets; 90% have no computer centers; 93% have no libraries; and 95% have no science laboratories.  We’re learning about these challenges through our partnership with Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), a law clinic set up to address what it describes as the ailing education system in South Africa.  Part of the problem is that while the South African Schools Act of 1996 empowered the Minister of Basic Education to set minimum norms and standards for all schools, such norms and standards were never established.

But last week, our partner in South Africa made measurable progress.  EELC and its sister organization, Equal Education (EE), along with the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), secured a major victory on the path to education reform in South Africa.  In an out-of-court settlement, the Minister of Basic Education agreed to promulgate binding minimum norms and standards for infrastructure of the country’s public schools.

The proposed norms and standards will be published for public comment by January 15, 2013 and finalized by May 15, 2013.  They will address issues such as classroom infrastructure, electricity, water, sanitation, libraries, laboratories, recreational facilities, and school security.  The regulations will require every school in South Africa to meet a basic but acceptable level of school infrastructure that supports learning and teaching.  Provincial departments that fail to meet these minimum standards can then be held accountable for their shortcomings and brought into compliance.

To be sure, this is only a preliminary step.  Those who care about education will need to ensure that the norms and standards established by the government are substantive and meaningful, and will then need to work hard to see that those standards are met.  Our Clinic has been lucky to support EELC over the past semester on education-related litigation and advocacy, and looks forward to carrying the campaign forward with them.

Students protesting for equal education in South Africa
Photo courtesy of Equal Education

NOTE: To learn more about the campaign that led to this victory, read a first-person account by Doron Isacs of Equal Education here.