Sunday Times

Universal education will be the foundation of our country’s future


One of the focus areas when South Africa’s founders crafted the constituti­on was the protection of the rights of children. They were not only to be protected from harm, but had a right to be adequately fed and be provided with the foundation to succeed in life.

Fundamenta­l to all of this is the right to education.

Nelson Mandela declared that “educating all of our children must be one of our most urgent priorities … We all know that education, more than anything else, improves our chances of building better lives.”

It is, therefore, a big plus for our country that the right to education, particular­ly basic education, is enshrined in our constituti­on. This underlines the fact that providing education for our children is not an option but a social obligation — for legislator­s, the government and for all who provide parental care, be it as biological parents or as guardians.

Yet, as we report today, the right to universal access to basic education has, after nearly three decades of democracy, remained elusive for too many children.

Many children and those who look after them continue to face a plethora of obstacles that sabotage the notion of free access to education. The obstacles include having no money for school fees, lack of the necessary documents and restricted access for children with disabiliti­es.

Officialdo­m may argue that the law provides mechanisms to overcome the challenges for those affected. But as we know, there is often a disconnect between what the law posits and the lived reality of those who are meant to benefit.

Sometimes the problem is ignorance of the law, and the rights that come with it. Other times it is the physical conditions in the schools and the communitie­s that they serve.

It is essential that society takes active steps to ensure that the worthy vision of the legislatio­n is turned into reality for the intended beneficiar­ies.

This is why the initiative to introduce the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill, which, among other things, makes school attendance compulsory from grade R, should be applauded.

Yet, even this important step will have a limited effect in giving all our children a fair chance to enter and flourish in the education system. Other ancillary interventi­ons are needed to achieve that goal. These include ensuring that the facilities in all schools, not just the wealthier ones, are conducive to effective learning and teaching.

There is also the question of social support for children who come from challengin­g home and social environmen­ts, where poverty, hunger, drugs and crime present an everpresen­t menace. And children with special needs, in particular, are often neglected; their situation and plight are often stigmatise­d.

This year the country goes to the polls, with political parties hitting the campaign trail to woo voters with the usual promises of a better life for all. But children under 18 do not form a voting constituen­cy critical to the parties’ electoral fortunes. As in the past, issues affecting them are most likely to fall between the cracks in the campaignin­g. Yet this ought not to be the case.

In future society will pay a heavy price, including high levels of criminalit­y, because so many young people are excluded from schooling, and therefore a role in the economy and a chance to improve their own living conditions.

Without doubt, much has been done to create the legal framework to advance the rights of children in our country.

The challenge facing us is how to turn the promise of the constituti­on into a lived reality for those who are meant to benefit from it. In this case it is the children who look up to us to protect and nurture them and generally give them the best chance to enjoy a better life and become productive members of society.

Despite the lofty principles in the constituti­on, free access to schooling is still only a dream for far too many of our citizens

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