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Education International

The politics and practice of making the right to education real: 10 lessons

published 23 March 2015 updated 23 March 2015
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I have been asked to speak on the current major challenges and opportunities for advocacy on the right to education.

I am sure that I speak for many South Africans if I say that we stand in solidarity with you on the core beliefs that have brought you here: that quality education for all is a public good, an investment that is made by the state for all of its citizens for the benefit of society as a whole; that both social justice and sustainable development require not only a quality and empowering education for all, but an education that is equitable – that empowers the poor and the marginalized and does not perpetuate the growing national and international social and economic inequalities.

The history of educational struggle in South Africa makes us identify strongly with your framework of understanding of how change happens: that citizens are crucial in holding governments accountable, in ensuring that governments are responsive and effective; and that civil society organisations can be powerful vehicles for ensuring that diverse voices are heard – particularly those who are marginalized.

We cannot rest on our laurels. The victories of 1990 and 2000 are inadequate to overcome the challenges of 2015 and 2030.

Fanon is profound on this point: ‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it’.

Discovery necessarily originates in the obscurity of confusion and lack of clarity, because we learn when we do not know the answers to the questions we ask and when new thinking is required to solve new problems. The solutions are found ‘out of obscurity’ because the leaders of the new generation of thinkers with new answers are unknown to us; they are not the current leaders who are stuck in the solutions that were the fulfillment of the victories of the struggles of their generation. The new leaders are also at some distance from the seductive relationships of ‘cooperation’ with those who walk in the corridors of power, which relationships are a consequence of these victories and the programmes they secured.

And new thinking requires political contestation. Sometimes, the solutions we have crafted and the slogans they have become, assume a currency that is depoliticized. The victory themselves makes them taken-for-granted and non-contestable, they are no longer the focus of political activity and contestation and are not kept alive through debate. In South Africa, the right to education is core to our revered Bill of Rights in the Constitution. But what is the content of this right? Internationally, can we find any person who is taken seriously who does not claim to subscribe to the right to education? Is our analysis and language simply nostalgic? Do we recognize that we are in a different time and that an Assembly such as this has to ‘refresh the discourse, practices and modes of organisation’ ?

The principles of the victories we have won must be re-politicised by a new generation of thinkers who use the plateaux secured by prior victories to wage new struggles that sharpen and deepen previous victories and through contestation hone them to cleave current challenges.

Just as in many other countries, in South Africa a new generation of activists is doing precisely this in education. We have won, through struggle, a legal framework that has been constructed to build a solid base for the achievement of the right to education. We have a political leadership who I believe are deeply committed to achieving these rights. But we are still failing. The racial and ethnic inequalities of apartheid persist in the quality of schooling, in the material realities of the working conditions of teachers, and in the inequalities of the resource base for teaching and learning. Despite our gains, the children of the working class and poor disproportionately fail and dropout of school.

I have learned a lot from these activists and will share ten of these lessons as my response to the topic of challenges and opportunities for advocacy on the right to education.

The first lesson: In any work we wish to do to advance the right to education, we must be accountable to the people in whose name we work: the students, the teachers and the parents. These are the constituencies which must drive our work. The real work is at the grassroots of their lived realities and this requires solid and sustained political work, political education and mobilization. We cannot run ahead of this and ascribe to ourselves the right to speak on behalf of those living the reality of the conditions we seek to change.

The second lesson is: Teachers are a powerful and an organised constituency and are critical to the political work. One of the greatest strengths of the GCE is the active membership of Education International. I do not know the answer to the question I am about to ask – but I wonder if the affiliate organisations of Education International are consistently and sufficiently part of national and local struggles for making rights to education real? This is an important question to me as teachers occupy a unique position – they are part of the delivery mechanism of education and their work is hugely impacted upon by deficiencies in the framework of provision. This often places them in the firing line rather than being seen as a key constituency for meaningful education change.

The third lesson is that rigorous research is required for credible evidence based arguments and holding government accountable. There are several examples of this. The human rights and privatisation project under PERI (the Privatisation of Education Research Initiative which is an OSF project), has centralised empirical data to inform parallel reports submitted to the human rights committees in Geneva, and has demonstrated that solid evidence and deliberate mobilisation can have an impact on national policy debates. This has been the case in Morocco, and is gaining traction in Uganda. In South Africa, Equal Education has based its campaigns to achieve a firm regulatory basis for the provision of school infrastructure on careful research and firm evidence. Whatever the specific instances of education injustice, whether these are around access, quality, or governance, or human rights frameworks, compelling arguments must have the integrity of valid information and valid arguments.

The fourth lesson is that, however great the expertise, it is impotent if it remains an elite activity, which is not driven by and accountable to a significant and credible mass base. If excellent work is done, but it is not organically led in governance and decision making by the participation of those in whose name we speak, the potential impact is dissipated. When the voices of a democratically organized mass base are summoned as an occasional convenience and a tokenistic acknowledgement and these voices and their structures do not profoundly shape the content and shape of struggle, legitimacy is compromised. There should be no space that is reserved for experts alone.

The fifth lesson is that public interest litigation can be a powerful vehicle for advancing educations rights. South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle won significant civil and political rights. Our Bill of Rights provides comprehensive social and economic rights, which the State is obliged to fulfill, and which are enforceable in our courts. Several South African NGOs have used this to great effect: the victories of Equal Education, Section 27, the Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Child Rights have deepening the statutory content of the constitutional right to education and entrenching this in enforceable judgments.

The sixth lesson is that even exemplary public interest litigation cannot be a substitute for social mobilization.

The seventh lesson is that litigation is unlikely to correct implementation failures that arise from lack of capacity rather than lack of will. Remedies have to be crafted on the basis of a clear understanding of the constraints, structures, challenges, powers, and functioning of the State. Litigation should be a last resort when accountability cannot be achieved through other means. Every possible democratic space must be probed so that these mechanisms work – and that includes working through elected representatives and formal parliamentary committees.

The eighth lesson is that it is impossible to have equity in education in the context of growing inequality, mass unemployment and poverty. Too much research, discussion, advocacy and planning around education is narrow and divorced from the broad socio-economic injustices that prevent quality education. A discussion about equity in education, or education as a public good, must situate education within a broader project of expanding democratic spaces, defending and advancing equity and broader rights. Too often the struggle for education rights has been depoliticized and treated as a purely technical issue. Too often researchers are looking for a magical solution which will not question or disrupt the status quo, and which will not challenge the way that power and wealth are distributed in our countries and the world. An education movement that is serious must be part of broader movements focusing on justice and sustainability in housing, healthcare, water and sanitation, and unemployment. Locating our struggle for quality and equal education for all in this way also forces us to continually pose the question about what education is for.

My ninth lesson is that local struggles must draw strength from international advocacy efforts – but activists should not allow their work to be subsumed into international politics to the detriment of local work and democratic process. This is a particular challenge in the South because of the efforts to correct the imbalance in representation of the south in global fora and the ‘gobbling up’ of emergent leadership – which is often the case with women in particular. Those with responsibility to lead globally must draw their inspiration and strength from local struggles and make significant investment in listening and learning from the ground. That work is the primary locus of struggle, and that work must drive international positions. Our theory of change must have a more measured appreciation of how change happens at local level, and the important – but limited role of international victories. These only have meaning when they are translated into change on the ground through activism.

My tenth lesson is a simple one: We must build a local resource base to fund our work – preferably by individual donor subscription. This is critical to legitimacy and to counter the accusations made of manipulation by foreign donors


Only by maintaining democratic practice on the ground can representation at the national and global levels be legitimate. Only in this way can a national, regional or global network be not only legitimate but also credible. Only when legitimacy and credibility go hand in hand can advocacy undertaken by a multi-scalar network be effective.

In closing, I must ask a final question: What is the real struggle, is it effective advocacy at the global level? As important (or unimportant) as the Millennium Development Goals may prove to be, this cannot be the sum total of our focus as activists. The real struggle is to respond to challenges on the ground and to build resilient structures and strategies based on that. What flows from this is the need to craft robust and enduring democratic practice and structure within our organisations. In this way, and only in this way, is any representation at the global level legitimate.

My generation in South Africa has been privileged to learn lessons from anti-apartheid struggle, and we must embrace the learning from this new generation with its rigorous and vibrant discoveries of the current mission it seeks to fulfill as it addresses our failures both in implementing our vision but also in rebuilding the tradition of struggle that is essential for ensuring the survival of our ideals.

This text has been adapted from Mary’s Keynote address to the Global Campaign for Education World Assembly (South Africa, 23 February 2015).

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.