OP-ED Opinions 

News24.com | Kumi Naidoo: On Hendrik Verwoerd and why we should be outraged by the state of education in SA

2019-08-21 09:01

If Verwoerd were alive today, the terrible truth is that he would be happy to see how his legacy is still driving inequality and causing suffering for the majority of South Africa’s children, writes Kumi Naidoo.

It
was as a 15-year-old during the national student uprisings in 1980 that my eyes
were first fully opened to apartheid in South Africa. The injustice of this
racist system affected all parts of our society, but it was its impact on
education that mobilised thousands of young South Africans like me to fight it.
We were inspired by the 1976 historic Soweto uprising that championed the same
cause.

As
most of us know in South Africa, the man responsible for this horrific legacy
is Hendrik Verwoerd – commonly known as the “architect” of South
Africa’s racist system of apartheid. His very image invokes painful memories.
So why then did Amnesty International South Africa choose to use his smiling
face for our right to quality education campaign, #SignTheSmileOff?

With
this campaign we do not seek to offend or retraumatise those of us who lived
during that horrendous period of our history. We do, however, wish to remind
people that the legacy of that painful history is still very much with us.

The
research that we and other organisations have conducted over the years has revealed
a dire picture of education, which is a major contributor to the continuing
high levels of poverty and inequality in South Africa. The residual effects of
the Bantu Education Act, which Verwoerd designed, are still prevalent and are
impacting on successive generations of young people.

OPINION | A smiling Hendrik Verwoerd is not the answer to the education crisis

If
Verwoerd were alive today, the terrible truth is that he would be happy to see how
his legacy is still driving inequality and causing suffering for the majority
of South Africa’s children. That is exactly why we made the hard choice of
putting up Verwoerd’s face at the start of this campaign.

The
hope was that Verwoerd’s face would invoke outrage by the fact that many young
people are still experiencing the pain of disadvantage. Our education system
today still ends up favouring the rich and middle classes while under-privileged
and rural communities continue to be marginalised.

We
should be outraged at the fact that 46% of schools lack basic sanitation and 17%
continue to use extremely unsafe pit latrines. We should be horrified that 78%
of Grade 4 learners cannot read comprehensively in any language and 61% of
Grade 5 learners cannot add or subtract. 

We
cannot wait another 25 years when the future of so many children is at
stake. Our goal with this campaign was to provoke a sense of outrage and urgency
about the situation and the critical need to prioritise the state of education in
this country.

The
response to the campaign – both positive and negative – speaks to how visceral
the apartheid legacy still is, and it is vital that we come together to fully
redress the results of the past racially discriminatory laws and practices.

Since
the fall of the apartheid regime, successive governments have made important
strides in education, particularly with regards to achieving near-universal
access. However, among the structural inequalities which persist, one of the
most glaring is the fact that millions of students do not enjoy their right to quality
basic education. The issues around numeracy and reading can be resolved if
children are given the resources they require including functioning basic infrastructure,
text books and libraries.

Yet
while this inequality needs to be fully addressed, I am extremely disappointed
to see that the Department
of Education has outright refused to accept the basic facts

we have found in our research.

We
are inviting the government to meet with us and other organisations and experts
working on education and human rights to come up with viable and sustainable
solutions needed to tackle the crisis.

Our
vision is simple. All South African children have the right to quality, primary
and secondary education under both domestic and international law. Being able
to read and do simple Math equips children with the tools for a better future.

Over
the next few days, our campaign will feature the faces of young South African
children, with the appeal to support our call to ensure that all children in our
country can smile because they can see the potential of a future through
education.  

The
hopes and dreams embodied in their faces should be the only image we associate
with South Africa’s education system going forward. It’s up to the government
to make that happen.

– Naidoo is secretary general of Amnesty International.

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