Just before the 2024 national elections and on the 30th anniversary of the first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, thousands of Equalisers (EE learner members) marched to parliament demanding accountability, transparency, and better service delivery in South Africa’s basic education system. Informed by the track record and manifestos of various political parties who are now in the Government of National Unity (GNU), we vehemently demand improvements – in the way public money is spent, in eradicating infrastructure backlogs, in ensuring equitable access to schools, and in a host of other issues that would improve the quality and standard of education outcomes across the system. In a society where education is often heralded as the cornerstone of progress and prosperity, the role of government in protecting this social good cannot be overstated.

We note the presence of a new incumbent, Ms. Siviwe Gwarube, in the role of minister of basic education in South Africa. We note that, while she comes from the Democratic Alliance, we fully expect her to account first to the millions of learners, parents, teachers, and community members she serves. We look forward to engaging in good faith with a young, energetic public servant in a participatory manner, to ensure that the GNU prioritises and delivers equal and quality education for all.


One of the most frightening aspects of the new GNU is its perceived preference for exacerbating the austere approach to public spending that has characterised government expenditure in recent years. Once inflation is taken into account, per-learner spending has decreased every year consecutively since 2019. This is simply something that learners in the basic education system cannot afford. Cuts to the basic education budget will threaten the immediately realisable right to basic education that is protected by the constitution. Attempts to replace public money with private funding will widen the inequality gap between our public schools and entrench an unsustainable dependency on actors whose incentives do not necessarily align with the needs of learners and teachers.

An example of this is the Western Cape Education Department’s collaboration school model, in which private entities ‘partner’ with public schools to better capacitate them through providing resources and governance expertise. This model has failed learners, not only in the Western Cape, but also across the world, undermining principles of democratic governance and accountability, while delivering poorer educational outcomes to learners. We caution against the expansion of the WCED collaboration school model into other provinces, which was worryingly advertised in the DA’s manifesto.


This is not to disparage all attempts at innovation and collaboration in the education sector. The WCED has also partnered with various non-profit organisations and other private actors in other efforts to bolster the education system. Attempts to remedy education losses caused by school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Back on Track project were encouraging. Expanding similar support programmes to improve early-age literacy, reading in indigenous languages, teacher support and other extra-curricular support could prove to be useful interventions to improve the quality of education across the country.


Another potential intervention that could be learned from is the Rapid School Build infrastructure programme that the WCED undertook to build new schools and classrooms to alleviate overcrowding crises in the Western Cape. It is important, however, that scaling similar programmes should take due consideration of the necessary quality of building materials, the needs of the communities they service, and the developmental agenda of the state in terms of capacity development and economic transformation.

The education sector is increasingly being burdened by capacity and classroom infrastructure backlogs. Education departments have also failed to meet several deadlines to achieve the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure. Exploring mechanisms to improve the quality and efficiency of infrastructure delivery across the country is something that should be prioritised.

While progress to achieve the 2016 deadline of eliminating all plain-pit latrines from public schools in this country has been excruciatingly slow, it is edging closer to completion. We expect the new leadership of the DBE to not repeat the injustices of previous administrations. Progress should be more effectively and transparently reported; timelines should be placed back into the Norms and Standards for school infrastructure law and strictly adhered to; and consequence management should be enacted to deal with poor-performing implementing agents, contractors, and officials.


Heading into the election, we expressed our disappointment that no party’s manifesto recognised the severity of the admissions crisis that plagues the education departments each year. There are simply not enough quality schools, especially in under-resourced communities where they are most needed. This problem is exacerbated by inadequate and inequitable education budgeting and spending; and inadequate monitoring, planning, and communication by education districts and departments. 


In response to our advocacy around unplaced learners at schools, the DA-led Western Cape Department of Education was actively combative and refused to recognise the issue until it was obliged by the courts. This is not the type of engagement we wish to experience going forward, and we urge all government representatives, most especially the new minister, to prioritise constructive engagement with stakeholders in the education sector, including learners, caregivers, parents, trade unions, civil society, and community members. A department that neglects to be transparent and accountable will not only undermine the integrity of the sector but also perpetuate cycles of inequality and marginalisation, disproportionately affecting vulnerable black communities.


On this note, it is imperative that we stress the importance of good governance, collaboration, and consultation to the new GNU leadership. This is especially important in basic education, where the rights of learners to safe schools, adequate sanitation, sustainable sources of water and electricity, and a range of others intersect with the services provided by various departments.

Education can not and should not be sacrificed at the altar of narrow and regressive political agendas. The new minister of education must navigate this terrain with humility and transparency, ensuring that her department’s performance is publicly reported accurately, timeously, and in good-faith. If the department does not take counsel from schooling communities through bodies like EE and unions they will not be able to identify and therefore resolve many of the problems faced in the education sector, especially in rural areas and working-class communities.

Equal Education remains steadfast in our commitment to advocating for a fair and just basic education system in South Africa. We are vigilant against all political parties in the current GNU, noting that they do not offer a grassroots-led, working-class alternative that will bring systemic change for black learners, but they are rather different organisations that are in the race for power. Despite this, we urge the new government to prioritise the needs of learners and ensure that education reforms are guided by principles of justice, equity, transparency, and accountability. The success of our nation depends on the quality of education provided to our children, and we stand ready to support and hold the government accountable for this vital mission.

To arrange a media interview, contact: 

Sesethu August (Equal Education Communications Officer) sesethu@equaleducation.org.za or on WhatsApp @083 890 8723, for calls:+27 (63) 221-7983

Photos by: Jules Ruby