By Janice Bleazard

In January next year, the doors of the Equal Education Law Centre will open in Cape Town’s city centre.  The Equal Education Law Centre – or ‘the EELC’ for short – will have a team of lawyers who will work hand-in-hand with Equal Education to protect and advance the right to education in South Africa.  These lawyers will help Equal Education to stop unlawful activities at schools – for example, discrimination against learners, corporal punishment, expulsion without prior disciplinary proceedings; closure of schools without proper procedure; failure by government to provide textbooks and other basic resources, and so on. They will also support EE’s campaign work, such as the Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure Campaign, and may launch big cases of their own to promote quality and equal education through the law.

There have been very few court cases dealing with the right to education in South Africa. But this should change with the establishment of the Equal Education Law Centre.  The lawyers at the EELC will work to protect the right to education, which is enshrined under section 29 of the Constitution.  Section 29 states simply that“Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education.”  The Constitutional Court – the highest court in South Africa – has emphasised the importance of this right in a few of its judgments. For example, in a case called Head of Department, Mpumalanga v Hoërskool Ermelo, heard in2009, the Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke stated that:

“It is trite that education is the engine of any society. And therefore, an unequal access to education entrenches historical inequity as it perpetuates socio-economic disadvantage (paragraph 2) . . . . The new education system must lay a foundation for the development of all people’s talents and capabilities and advance the democratic transformation of society and combat racism, sexism, unfair discrimination and the eradication of poverty (paragraph 55).”

Simply put, Justice Moseneke is saying that education is the most powerful way society can lift people out of poverty, and to make sure that everyone can participate fully in their communities and the country.  Education allows people to gain knowledge, to grow their skills and build on their talents. In this way, education empowers people to work, to find solutions to their problems, and to make a difference in the world around them.  Education also plays an important role in empowering women, protecting children from exploitative jobs and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, and protecting the environment.  For these reasons, if education remains unequal, all these other benefits will remain unequal – and the inequalities we have inherited from apartheid will not be resolved.  

It gives us hope to hear judges in the highest court recognizing the importance of education. It suggests that the work of EE and the new EELC will find support in the courts.