Wipe Verwoerd's smile away: Amnesty International SA embarks on education campaign

Hendrik Verwoerd (File, AFP)
Hendrik Verwoerd (File, AFP)

"Wipe the smile off Verwoerd's face." That is what Amnesty International South Africa is calling on the country's leaders to do when it comes to basic education. 

On Monday, it launched the #SignTheSmileOff campaign to tackle the state of basic education.

The campaign is based on the organisation's assertion that Hendrik Verwoerd, the minister of native affairs during apartheid who was known as the architect of apartheid, would be smiling at the current state of the education system in South Africa 25 years after democracy.

In a statement, the organisation said: "The campaign urges members of the public, who care about the provision of quality education, to 'sign the smile off Verwoerd's face' by demanding that South Africa's leaders urgently provide all children with the decent quality, basic education that is their birth right as enshrined in the Constitution."

It continued: "By signing the smile off Verwoerd's face, the public will add their names to a petition that calls on the government to fix the problems in education by 2021.

"Our campaign rightly points out that if the man who created apartheid looked back now, he'd be smiling," Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International's secretary-general, said.

"By coming together and taking action now, we can increase pressure on the state to deliver a quality education and wipe the smile off Verwoerd's face and erase his legacy forever."

Naidoo added: "Learning from the past is vital to understanding our present. However, Amnesty International's ultimate goal with this campaign is to ensure that every child in South Africa is given a hope for the future by receiving a quality education."

Shenilla Mohamed, Amnesty International South Africa's executive director, said in the statement South African schools still lacked basic resources. 

"More than two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa's education system still mirrors the apartheid years, with many schools serving our poorest communities relying on outdated and poorly maintained infrastructure and a dire lack of teaching resources that provides a wholly inadequate learning space for young people.

"While South Africa has made progress in providing access to education, it has yet to tackle the deeply entrenched legacy of apartheid, left by Hendrick Verwoerd, that continues to result in massive inequalities in the country's education system,” she said.

The organisation added that 78% of South Africa's 10-year-old pupils could not read, and 61% of 11-year-olds could not do basic mathematics.

Pupils at 17% of the country's schools are still forced to use highly dangerous and unsanitary pit latrines, leading to several tragic deaths by drowning in recent years. Currently, half of the around 1.2 million pupils enrolled in Grade 1 every year drop out by Grade 12. Only 14% of pupils, who enter the country's school system, will qualify for university.

During apartheid, the Bantu Education Act was introduced, which racially separated pupils. Black schools were underfunded and subjects were taught with the aim to direct black pupils to the unskilled labour market.

According to South African History Online, education for black children under apartheid left them "with little hope of a bright future", and did not open up opportunities for them.

"Dr Verwoerd, the minister of native affairs at the time, argued African education should be inferior to that of white education and Africans should only be trained to become unskilled labourers. He said: 'The natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them. There is no place for the Bantu child above the level of certain forms of labour'."

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