18 September 2016
By Commissioner Lindiwe Mokate, SAHRC Commissioner responsible for Children’s Rights and Basic Education
Protests that target schools have taught us that we all have a role to play in safeguarding children’s rights, writes Lindiwe Mokate.
South Africa is among the countries that have the highest number of protests in the world - an estimated 13 500 a year, according to the police.
Most protests proceed unevent-fully, but some have an effect on the realisation or enjoyment of other human rights.
The most recent and widely publicised example was the protest in Vuwani in Limpopo, where 29 schools were burned down and 102 schools were affected, with at least 52 000 pupils being unable to go to school for months.
The costs have run to the millions.
As a developing country, South Africa can ill afford to interrupt schooling.
The right to protest and the right to a basic education are guaranteed by a range of international human rights treaties South Africa has signed.
The country’s constitution and laws also protect these two rights.
Over the past five years, the South African Human Rights Commission has observed cases in which protests have affected the right to a basic education.
There is no indication that this problem is being addressed effectively.
If anything, the interruptions are growing in number and intensity.
The actions of protesters range from the blockading of roads to threats of violence to pupils and teachers and the damaging of infrastructure, including setting school buildings alight.
In most cases, the reasons for the protests have nothing to do with basic education, yet education becomes the target.
Concerned about this growing trend, the commission convened a national investigative hearing on these matters in June.
The parameters were the effects of protest-related action on education.
Critical questions framed by the probe sought to establish why protesters resorted to targeting schools to draw attention to their causes.
The commission also questioned the adequacy of measures that government departments have adopted in trying to address the challenges faced by the education sector.
Expert panellists indicated the need for collective responses to the concerns about the effects on education, ranging from the individual to the community, traditional leadership and government departments.
In particular, they highlighted the need to recognise that the right to education was fundamental to efforts to reduce poverty and inequality, and achieve trans-formation and development.
The constitution guarantees the right to protest “peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions”.
This remains an important right in any democracy. But in the exercising of this right, other rights must be respected.
Significantly, our constitution places a premium on the protection and promotion of the rights of children, requiring that in all matters concerning a child the best interests of the child should take precedence.
Protesters should be considerate of children’s rights and their best interests.
The hearing homed in on the need to protect the right to education.
It explored the effect on the right to engage diverse stakeholders, including government departments.
While the hearings helped to clarify the roles and obligations of state actors as well as the responsibility of private actors, they placed education at the centre.
They raised awareness of the problems caused by interference in basic education.
What emerged during the hearings was that a co-ordinated response had been lacking in instances where protests threatened the right to basic education.
The need for a co-ordinated response, with information sharing and early warnings, was also identified as critical to averting adverse effects on schools.
The commission recommended that a national public protest response team be established to ensure greater co-operation among departments.
It also recommended that the response team be replicated at provincial and, in some cases, local government levels.
The commission envisages a faster and more effective reaction in instances where interference with basic education seems a possibility or has occurred.
Departments such as the SAPS and that for basic education are required to report back to the commission within six months on the progress made in complying with some of its recommendations.
Recording the effects on learning and the cost to the fiscus, the commission emphasised the need for protesters to be mindful of the effects of their actions, particularly if they affected basic education directly.
The commission emphasised that greater awareness and
creating a sense of collective ownership of schools were prerequisites for the protection and promotion of the rights of pupils.
After all, education is intended for the advancement of the individual and society as a whole.
Beyond the state’s authority,
we all have a responsibility to ensure that it is protected from disruption.
Opinion piece by Commissioner Lindiwe Mokate, SAHRC Commissioner responsible for Children’s Rights and Basic Education.