A letter from Equal Education Coordinator Doron Isaacs
Today Equal Education (EE) celebrates its 4th birthday.
Four years ago two groups of people came together for a discussion. On the one side were some of South Africa’s most thoughtful educationalists and educational academics. Opposite them sat some of the country’s most hardworking post-apartheid activists, including some who had been significant in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The question to be discussed was: could a citizens’ movement for education be built? In other words, would it be possible to replicate the success of TAC for the purposes of involving ordinary people in struggle – on the basis of knowledge – for a quality and equal education system in South Africa?
The similarities and differences with the health sector were debated. In education it was clear that we were not dealing with a government in denial. The importance of the crisis in educational quality was acknowledged by the state, and there was a deep desire to improve outcomes. Secondly, there was no stigma to overcome as there had been with HIV; on the contrary, education being the core value of the middle class, and the aspirational objective of the working class, was something that everyone would embrace.
But it was also agreed that a lot could be learnt from the struggle to improve health. At the moment that government had embraced a pseudo-scientific approach to HIV, it had also developed the obtuse OBE curriculum. We knew too that although education was something everyone wanted, it was also an object of fear and silence for many parents; those who had missed out on schooling during the 1980s’ states of emergency were often intimidated by teachers and did not participate in their children’s education at all. Although the purpose of the movement-to-be was to assist government in making a success of education, it was understood that disagreements would arise, and that our relationship would include both cooperation and confrontation.
There was one thing everybody readily agreed upon: mobilised communities, actively involved in their schools, were the key to unlocking the progress that had been eluding the democratic government.
This was an idea whose time had come.
Delivering the annual Steve Biko memorial lecture Minister Trevor Manuel said the following:
“With the best will in the world, national government sitting in Tshwane is unable to monitor teacher attendance, whether teaching is actually taking place or whether students are in class learning. Without the integral involvement of communities, we don't stand a chance of improving the quality of schooling, especially in poor communities.
“In many cases, we have been too coy about providing the institutional space for peoples' power to prevail.
“When we reminisce about the 1970s and the 1980s, we often remember the mass protests, the community mobilisation, the active involvement of communities in solving their own problems. Communities did not suddenly wake up and start protesting. No, they were organised by groups of young activists, mostly students. Where have all the activists gone? What do the young people who are politically astute and socially aware do these days? Who is doing the mobilising? Who are the catalysts for social transformation?
“Democracy is now begging for organised communities to fulfil their responsibilities.”
EE is a small but important attempt to answer these questions.
What the public knows of EE are our campaigns that have caught media attention: The calls for school libraries, the demands to replace mud-schools with proper buildings, the drives for textbooks, the push to fill empty teacher posts, and the annual student-driven mobilisation against late-coming. These have been our first steps, and there will be others. But what makes this all possible – and ensures that it continues in a highly disciplined, organised, radical and peaceful manner – is the weekly and daily work that is less visible.
Each week for the past four years young people have come together to discuss the state of their schools, their country and the world. They have read Steve Biko, Adam Hochschild, Nelson Mandela, Pam Christie, and George Orwell. They have studied the ongoing student uprising in Chile, have hosted conscientious objector teenagers from Israel, and have mobilised against xenophobia and homophobia in Khayelitsha.
And they set the example in their schools, being first to arrive and last to leave, reading extra and dreaming bigger, serving on the RCL committees and attending EE meetings, volunteering in the 14 libraries we have opened and campaigning for equal resources for all, supporting their teachers’ demands for higher salaries, and standing at the staff-room door demanding that their teachers are in class on time.
Whether we can leverage this concentration of human intelligence and energy into improved educational outcomes across the country remains an open question. But we intend to try. If we fail – and unemployment and poor literacy remain the norm for millions of young adults – South Africa will fall to more cunning and unattractive alternatives.
This year we will press our campaign for a legal framework of standards for school infrastructure. The law gives the Minister the power to do this, and she has back-tracked from commitments to do so. It is one of the areas in which we disagree with her. At the moment there is still no piece of paper that commits provinces to equip schools to a certain standard, and we can’t go on like this. We intend to build an overwhelming call for this crucial instrument, in the streets and also, reluctantly, through the courts.
As we thrust forward with this national program, we will be working carefully and conscientiously closer to home. Khayelitsha, with its 54 public schools, is a place of great educational disappointment in a province of great wealth and resources. There have been some success stories, but the general picture is dire and getting worse. Less than 5% of maths candidates achieved 50% in the matric examinations, and the proportion of matriculants taking Maths has dropped from two-thirds to a third over the past four years, with no commensurate improvement in results. EE intends to harness the resources and energies of the citizens of Cape Town to invest heavily in Khayelitsha over the next decade to build – in a process led by community members, and in partnership with government – the possibility of a very different educational reality.
Over the next four years we will be looking to ordinary people in South Africa and around the world for human and material support. We hope you will lend us your sweat and your savings!
Yours in the struggle for quality and equal education,
I'm now Tweeting @doronisaacs