A few weeks ago the Harvard Human Rights Program tweeted about the fact that many students in rural South Africa have to walk more than 20km each day to get to and from school. They cross rugged mountains and flooded rivers. They navigate dangerous highways and treacherous weather. They face physical injury and emotional harm.
Surprisingly, shortly after we posted our tweet, a small number of Twitter users pushed back. One accused us of ignoring how lucky these students are to even be at school, implying that the difficulties of getting there are inconsequential. Another responded that if “it doesn’t kill you it makes you strong.” But as those paying attention to news reports over the past month know, a poor learner transport system has, in fact, already led to the death and injury of multiple children this year. And on our recent trip to Nqutu, KwaZulu-Natal, it didn’t take long to find students who have personal experience with the risks of robbery, rape, kidnapping, and even the death of friends – all created by the long journey to school.
How can this be inconsequential? How does this make anybody stronger?
Faced with such a difficult journey to school, many affected students drop out before completing Grade 12. During our trip, we heard from those who have continued attending school that they arrive exhausted, hungry, and have difficulty focusing in class. When they get home late at night, they may have responsibilities such as caring for livestock, fetching water, and helping to bathe siblings, nieces, and nephews before they can study. Some students go to bed at 11:00 pm, only to rise at 4:00 am and start their journey again.
Because of the many hours lost traveling to and from school, these students are forced to fit a full 24-hour day into something much less. Many struggle to do so by sacrificing homework and sleep, which has long-term consequences on their ability to stay healthy, to concentrate and to learn, and ultimately, to reach their full potential as adults.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s unemployment rate currently hovers around 25%. Among the youth labor force, this numbers jumps to over 33%. Nearly one-third of those aged 15 to 24 are not in employment, education, or training. They are detached from the labor force with seemingly no way to better their situation.
The consequences for South African society stretch far beyond these unemployed individuals. The high unemployment rate hinders the country’s economy, and the large population living in poverty burdens the national budget. The lack of an adequate learner transport system and the current unemployment rate are naturally linked, and neither should be met with indifference.
The South African Constitution provides that everyone has the right to an education, which the state must make available and accessible. In 2009, the Department of Transport took the important first step of drafting a National Scholar Transport Policy, though it has been stalled by years of opposition and political delay. Nearly six years later, the policy is still not active. South Africa can take an important step towards providing these children with an array of new opportunities for their education and their future by adopting and implementing the national scholar transport policy.
A strong and effective transport policy means students across South Africa will arrive at school better able to concentrate and prepared to learn. It means they won’t have to choose between helping their families at home and finding time to study. Rather than be constrained by their education, learners can be empowered by it. They can work in law, business, or science. They can become teachers, artists, or public servants.
And while improving the lives of rural South African youth may be difficult, without access to education, it would remain impossible. Instead of resisting change simply because we persisted without it, we should welcome the fact that we have the ability to provide more today than we did yesterday. We should embrace and cherish the possibility of progress. Wouldn’t that make these students stronger?
David Victorson, JD ’16, is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic currently working on education-related issues in South Africa, in partnership with Equal Education Law Centre.