As South Africa and the world remember Nelson Mandela, there is perhaps no greater way to honor his legacy than to continue the struggle for social justice.  A quality education for all children must be at the core of such efforts, as Mandela himself recognized.  “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” he said.  In the week before his death, real progress was made on the education front in South Africa.

Photo courtesy of Equal Education

Members of Equal Education march to the Department of Education in Pretoria to demand norms and standards. (Photo courtesy of Equal Education)

After three years of sustained campaigning by our South African partners, Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga finally released binding norms and standards for school infrastructure on November 29th.  The norms represent a significant victory for future generations of South African students, and for South Africa itself. 

The norms—which are legally binding—mandate substantial changes to public schools across the country, many of which must be realized on a relatively short time horizon.  Mud schools must be replaced within three years; schools that currently lack water, power, and toilets must be provided such facilities within three years; all schools must have classrooms, electric connectivity, and security measures within seven years; and all schools must have libraries and laboratories within ten years.  As a first step, provincial ministers will be required to develop school infrastructure plans within a year, and then report annually on their progress towards implementing the norms. 

There are still serious concerns.  The norms do not require provincial ministers to make either their plans, or their progress reports, available to the public.  The norms also contain a potentially worrisome legal loophole, in the form of language stating that they must only be implemented “as far as reasonably practicable.”  Equally troubling are some of the specific provisions, such as the proposed minimum number of toilets per student, which falls well short of international standards recommended by UNICEF and the WHO.  

Nevertheless, the norms carry the promise of tangibly improving the education, and therefore the lives, of millions of South African schoolchildren.  Our partners have fought long and hard to secure decent school infrastructure for all of South Africa’s students.  The norms victory would never have been possible without the advocacy work of EE student and parent members, who joined voices to ensure that their demands could not be ignored.  Their collaborative and creative efforts demonstrate that—as Mandela teaches us—while justice and equality may be a long time coming, a group of dedicated and committed people can transform a society.  Our Clinic is proud to support their work.

For more information, read Equal Education’s statement on the win, along with its statement after the death of Nelson Mandela. You can also find out about the Clinic’s work in South Africa here.