Guest Column

Will the black child ever prosper?

2017-06-20 14:31
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Thabang Pooe

On June 16, 1976, thousands of students from Soweto took to the streets to challenge Bantu Education – specifically the decree by the Bantu Education Department that imposed Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in half of the middle and high school subjects. Carrying signs that read, “Down with Afrikaans”, “Bantu Education” and “If we must do Afrikaans, [Prime Minister John] Vorster must do Zulu”, the youth decided to take a stand against an education system designed to systematically provide inferior and deeply unequal education to black learners.

Lacking fluency in Afrikaans, black teachers and pupils experienced first-hand the negative impact of the new policy in the classroom. With a large pool of educators not adequately trained to teach in Afrikaans, existing poor educational outcomes increased.

This was on top of chronic underspending to educate black children (the apartheid government spent R644 a year on a white child’s education but only R42 on a black child) and poor physical school infrastructure.

The dawn of democracy marked a new era in education. The Constitution, passed in 1996, included an immediate right to education that was not subject to available resources and a progressively realisable right to higher education. Not only did the Constitution provide for the right to education, it also provided for the right to receive education in the language or languages of one’s choice – where reasonably applicable.

In giving effective access to and implementation of this right, the Constitution calls on the state to consider equity, practicability and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.

The democratic government had a huge task ahead of it – reforming the education system and ensuring equal and quality education for all. This ranged from reforming the curriculum all the way to dealing with massive infrastructure backlogs. Critical to realising the constitutional mandate was the need to provide all schools with qualified teachers who could impart knowledge effectively, especially in one’s mother tongue.

It is against this background that a court challenge by Solidariteit Helpende Hand (“Solidarity”) should be understood.

Two years ago, Solidarity filed papers to challenge the selection criteria of the Funza Lushaka bursary scheme on the basis that it unfairly discriminates on the grounds of race which in turn includes the right to further education. This, they contend, is done through a selection criterion that:

Gives preference to students who intend to specialise in an Indigenous African Language in the foundation phase (Grade R to Grade 3); 
Favours candidates from rural areas and candidates who wish to teach in rural areas; and
Favours candidates who commit to teach at any public school to which those candidates may be appointed by a provincial education department.

In response to Solidarity, the Department of Basic Education argues that the criteria used for the selection are fair and aimed at redressing past inequalities in line with section (9)2 of the Constitution. They also argue that the selection criteria are aimed at training more teachers in indigenous African languages in line with the department’s policies.

The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) has applied to be admitted as a friend of the court. Its intervention aims to advance the position that the Funza Lushaka bursary scheme is consistent with the rights and values in the Constitution, including the need to prioritise the best interests of the child. It also aims to support the position of the state in its justification of the scheme as a progressive measure that is in line with its obligations in respect of the right to basic education enshrined in the Constitution.

Perhaps it is important at this point to set out in a little detail how the bursary came about.

Prior to 1994, teacher training was conducted through public training colleges which were generally free. These colleges were closed and bursaries abandoned when the colleges were absorbed into the 22 mainstream universities. This meant that the cost of education increased and fewer institutions were available to train teachers. This resulted in fewer institutions of learning, and fewer previously disadvantaged people were able to access teacher training because of the high tertiary costs and greater geographic distances. Overall, there was less accessibility to training programmes. This had a significant impact on teacher availability in rural areas and thus reproduced education inequality.

The government conducted an analysis of the supply and demand for teachers and found a major supply crisis. Insufficient numbers of teachers were being produced. Significantly, the lack of sufficient qualified black African teachers had dire implications for the effective development of numeracy and literacy by the mass of learners whose mother tongue is an indigenous African language – ie. the language of learning affected the ability of learners to learn other subjects effectively.

Consequently, the DBE developed various strategies and policies in order to address this crisis. These include the Strategic Plan 2011-2014 and the Action Plan to 2014; specific to language, the Language in Education Policy and the Policy on the Incremental Introduction of African Languages, which promotes multilingualism and provides for the inclusion of African Languages in the school curriculum. Accompanying these policies and strategies was the Funza Lushaka Bursary Programme.

The Funza Lushaka Bursary Scheme was introduced in 2007 as a measure aimed at recruiting and training more teachers, specifically teachers who are able to provide mother-tongue instruction to learners who speak African languages in order to service the shortages experienced in rural areas. The scheme aims to increase the number of well trained teachers entering the education system, to encourage young people to consider teaching as a career, to target scarce skills in teaching and to ensure are supply of teachers who can teach indigenous African languages at the foundation phase.

Clearly the scheme and its criteria constitute a progressive measure by the state to meet its obligation to ensure the meaningful access to the right to education – including the right to study in the language of your choice. In addition, the scheme ensures that children, who would otherwise not afford university fees, get access to further education.

In my view this application spits on the graves of the youth that died in pursuit of quality and equal education. And that cannot happen under our watch!

- Thabang Pooe is a legal researcher at SECTION27.

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