South Africa: Authorities must erase the lingering racial legacy from the education system

The legacy of racial discrimination in the South African education system, characterized by poor outcomes, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate facilities and learning materials for tens of thousands of students, still looms large 25 years into freedom, Amnesty International said today as it launched a new campaign #SignTheSmile.
The campaign highlights that despite the current government’s promises to make sure that every child receives a quality education, South Africa’s education system still is failing most school children and perpetuating deep inequalities.
Featuring the smiling image of Hendrik Verwoerd, the original “architect of apartheid”, the campaign encourages the public to “sign the smile off Verwoerd’s face” by demanding that South Africa’s leaders urgently provide all children with the decent quality, basic education that is their birth right as enshrined in the constitution.
“More than two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s education system still mirrors the apartheid years, with many schools serving our poorest communities relying on outdated and poorly maintained infrastructure and a dire lack of teaching resources that provides a wholly inadequate learning space for young people. South Africa is yet to tackle the deeply entrenched legacy of apartheid, left by Hendrick Verwoerd, that continues to result in massive inequalities in the country’s education system,” said Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa.
“Our vision is simple. All children have the right to a quality primary and secondary education. Being able to read and do simple maths can be a ticket out of poverty, and a chance to build a better future.”
The campaign highlights how 78% of South Africa’s 10-year-old learners cannot read, and 61% of 11-year-old schoolchildren cannot do basic mathematics. Pupils at 18% per cent of the country’s schools are still forced to use highly dangerous and unsanitary pit latrines, leading to several tragic deaths by drowning in recent years. Currently half of the around 1.2 million learners enrolled in Grade 1 every year drop out by Grade 12. Only 14% of pupils that enter our school system will qualify for university.
Recognising that these problems are entrenched and widespread, Amnesty International emphasised that they are also fixable by any government with the determination and political will to meet its own targets, monitor them rigorously and take the necessary remedial action instead of kicking the can down the road.
“South Africa is obliged under international human rights law to provide all public schools with sufficient resources to enable all children to enjoy their right to a decent education including equipping them with at least basic skills in reading and mathematics. The government must also replace every school pit latrine with safe, clean toilets by 1 January 2021,” said Shenilla Mohamed.
Kumi Naidoo, a South African who joined Amnesty International as its new Secretary General in August 2018, started campaigning for equality, including in education, aged 15 at his school in Durban.
“Our campaign rightly points out that if the man who created apartheid looked back now, he’d be smiling,” said Kumi Naidoo. By coming together now, we can wipe the smile off his face and erase his legacy forever.
“Learning from the past is vital to understanding our present. However, Amnesty International’s ultimate goal with this campaign is firmly focused on the future.”
From today, and for the next couple of weeks, smiling images of Hendrik Verwoerd, the original “architect of apartheid”, will be seen around Johannesburg. The campaign urges members of the public who care about the provision of quality education to “sign the smile off Verwoerd’s face” by demanding that South Africa’s leaders urgently provide all children with the decent quality, basic education that is their birth right as enshrined in the constitution. By signing the smile off Verwoerd’s face the public will add their names to a petition that calls on the government to fix the problems in education by 2021.
For more information or to request an interview, please contact:
Kuvaniah Moodley Media and Digital Content Consultant, Amnesty International South Africa: +27 11 283 6035, +27 78 095 3935 or