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Combating Education Inequalities in South Africa

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday – also known internationally as Mandela Day.  In South Africa, it is a day where everyone is encouraged to volunteer 67 minutes as a tribute to the many years that he spent fighting against injustice and inequality.  There are many worthwhile issues that South Africans could devote their service to on this day but there is probably none more urgent, and none more important for the country’s future economic and political stability, than the inequalities that exist in the current education system. Addressing the existing educational inequalities in South Africa, and elsewhere, is the civil rights issue of the 21st century and it will demand the same type of organization, leadership, and unwavering dedication that Mandela epitomized during the struggle against apartheid.

With the end of apartheid in 1994, the African National Congress, the dominant political party, established a new constitution and a new set of laws that were meant to transform the country in a way that reflected the values of dignity, equality, and freedom.  In fact, the constitution includes a right to basic education, which places a responsibility of the government to fulfill this right no matter what the financial cost.  Unfortunately, over the last eighteen years, the educational opportunities in South Africa remain skewed against those that suffered the most during apartheid.  For example, of those in the population who are 20 years of age and older, only 40% of black South Africans have completed at least “some” secondary school and only 5% have some higher education.  There has been little improvement in these percentages since 1994.  Of course, constitutional rights are meaningless until citizens force their elected representatives, the judiciary, and society as a whole to recognize and respect these rights.  This is definitely the case when it comes to the right to a basic education and there is growing evidence that a social movement, made up of South African and global civil society organizations, is beginning to make some gains when it comes to educational inequalities.

In June of this year, I was able to witness first-hand the nature of the education dilemma in South Africa as well as the responses to it.  With seven students from the University of San Diego, we linked up with a local non-profit, Sharing to Learn, to volunteer in a village called Makuleke for two weeks.  Makuleke is located in Limpopo province, approximately one hour from the Mozambique and Zimbabwe borders.  It is a community that epitomizes South Africa’s past and present.  In 1969, the people of Makuleke were forcibly moved from their native land, which is located in Kruger National Park, to their current location.  It is a typical rural community in South Africa in that it suffers from endemic poverty, high unemployment, and struggling schools. 

Yet what Makuleke lacks in economic development and educational resources it more than makes up for with citizens are committed to overcome their socio-economic obstacles.  In addition, Makuleke is fortunate to have dedicated non-profit organizations that are in the community and that are providing resources and working with local level leaders.  For example, Sharing to Learn, based in New York but whose founder and director lives in Makuleke 3-6 months out of the year, was founded in 2009 with the goal of improving the educational system in the village.  In the last three years, Sharing to Learn has done a tremendous amount in the community, but most notably, it has devoted considerable resources to building libraries.  In a country where 93% of the schools do not have a library, the fact that this community of 6,000 has two (one community library and one library at an elementary school), is a phenomenal accomplishment.

The other organization that has a presence in Makuleke is Equal Education.  What is important about this organization is that it is encouraging students themselves to organize and to form groups that are called “Equalizers.”  While in Makuleke, the USD students worked with the eight Equalizers that were established in June 2011, with the assistance of Sharing to Learn.  Over the course of our two weeks in Makuleke, the Equalizers introduced us to their personal ambitions, to their families and homes, and to their schools.  These are students who want to be doctors and engineers but who are often orphans and come from child-led homes, who often attend class where no teacher shows up, and who must share desks, workbooks, and if they are lucky, textbooks.  At times, learning about the many obstacles that they face on a daily basis, was overwhelming, and it felt as if they were caught in a vicious cycle, not of their own making, that was impenetrable to change.  As is always the case, real social empathy only occurs when the statistics and injustices become personal.

Our occasional pessimism, however, was overmatched with the Equalizers sense of optimism and determination.  By the end of our two weeks in Makuleke, with their insistence, we helped them to meet their principal (whom none of them had met before), the chief’s son (who is next in line to be chief), and we assisted them with coordinating a community meeting where they introduced themselves to other students, teachers, and adults.  Speaking in English and wearing their yellow Equal Education shirts, this group of eight students spoke eloquently about the conditions of their schools and their desire to improve them.  For all of them it was the first time they had ever addressed the community in this way.  One of the results of these meetings was that the group doubled its size before we left and the principal promised to support their group once the school year began. 

Over the last four years, because of the partnerships between Makuleke and organizations like Sharing to Learn (based in NY) [], Equal Education (based in Cape Town) [], and now, the University of San Diego, the education system in Makuleke is changing for the better.

Admittedly, these are small changes in what will be a long struggle, but still, it demonstrates the power that citizens can have over their own destinies and the opportunities for like-minded groups to join together for meaningful and sustainable change.  But more importantly, it provides hope for Mandela’s vision of a free and equal South Africa in the 21st century.