SEATTLE, Washington — Poverty affects children at a disproportionately high rate because they rely on others to fulfill their needs. This makes them distinctly vulnerable. According to UNICEF, children constitute half of those living in extreme poverty and this number rose by 150 million as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world. In South Africa, at least nine million additional children went hungry when the National Schools Nutrition Programme was suspended at the same time schools were closed as part of the COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020. This crisis demanded immediate attention, which fortunately was provided by organizations SECTION27, Equal Education and the Equal Education Law Centre. SECTION27 is fighting for children’s rights in South Africa.
Catalysts for Social Justice
Section 27, as it is written in the South African Constitution, states that every person should have the right to access “healthcare, food, water and social security,” and that the government is responsible for passing legislation to ensure these rights are realized. SECTION27, a South African public interest law center, works to ensure this right, and others, are protected by holding the government accountable and keeping the public informed. The main priorities of the organization are healthcare, fair governance, accountability and education. Education, the focus of its most recent work, is what SECTION27 calls the “gateway to the realization of other rights.”
The Fight for Nine Million Hungry Children
In March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a country-wide lockdown to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19, especially in the densely packed, poorer communities within South Africa. Schools had already closed, approximately a week before, on March 18. At the same time schools closed, the National School Nutrition Programme was suspended, leaving nine million children without their essential daily meal.
The National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is a government-run project that was put in place to provide a single, daily, nutritious meal to South African children in the poorer primary and secondary schools. This is important as it has been clearly evidenced that hunger affects a child’s ability to perform in school. Research has shown that children who have access to at least one meal a day are more likely to attend school, achieve academically and are less likely to repeat grades or display behavioral problems.
SECTION27, along with Equal Education (EE), the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), Children’s Institute and the Centre for Child Law responded to the suspension of the NSNP swiftly by writing an open letter addressed to the Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, “challenging the assertion” that the Department of Basic Education was unable to provide children with their NSNP meals while the country was in lockdown.
In May, during the meeting of Council of Education Ministers, it was agreed that the NSNP’s suspension would be lifted for all students once schools were reopened and that measures would be drafted to manage it within the context of the pandemic. This was publicly confirmed by Minister Motshekga just over one week later, and again by General Mathanzima Mweli in his letter to the South African Human Rights Commission. However, the notion that the NSNP would resume for all students was contradicted on June 1 when Minister Motshekga stated that the NSNP meals would only be provided to the students in the returning grades 7 to12, not those who were still required to stay home.
SECTION27, EE and EELC, followed up on the Minister’s statement and threatened legal action if she did not provide a clear plan on how she would ensure that all qualifying students gained access to their NSNP meals, regardless of whether or not they were returning to school. Shortly after, schools opened for grades 7 to12, millions of children remained without their NSNP meals. Legal action was subsequently taken. The case was heard virtually on July 2 and a judgment favoring Equal Education and others was handed down on July 17. While there has been some improvement in providing meals for qualifying students, SECTION27 is still fighting for the implementation of strategies to provide NSNP meals to students not currently attending school.
The Fight for Textbooks and Sanitation
In 2014, SECTION27 represented Basic Education for All in a case concerning 793,567 textbooks that were not delivered to students in the Limpopo province. SECTION27 argued that the failure to provide these textbooks is a breach of the South African Constitution and the right to Education. The Department of Basic Education countered with the argument that the content provided by textbooks can be fulfilled by teachers. However, this is an inaccurate claim as research has shown that 68% of South African teachers do not have the content knowledge needed to educate students. Textbooks are vital to fill the gaps. The North Gauteng High Court agreed with SECTION27’s assertion and ruled the Department of Basic Education failed to adequately provide students with the education they are entitled to as enshrined in the constitution.
Another example of the organization fighting for children’s rights in South Africa is an instance of violation of children’s rights in Limpopo. An estimated 3000 schools did not have adequate toilet facilities. Instead, they had pit toilets which are essentially holes dug into the ground. SECTION27 began talks with the Limpopo Department of Education and the Department of Basic Education but the situation became dire in 2014 when a six-year-old boy fell into one of the dangerous pit toilets and subsequently drowned.
In response to this tragedy, SECTION27 decided to take the provincial and national education departments to court for grievous incompetence. In 2017, the Polokwane High Court found that the Department of Basic Education had violated the constitution by not providing safe sanitation in schools. The Department was ordered to eradicate the pit toilets by June 30, 2018. According to 2019 figures, this has not been remedied and there are still over 2,500 schools in Limpopo with “unlawful pit toilets.”
There is an innumerable amount of challenges facing the children of South Africa but SECTION27 is one of the many organizations fighting for children’s rights in South Africa, providing hope through action.
– Emma Maytham