In November 2015 the Supreme Court of Appeal heard the matter between the Department of Basic Education and Others and Basic Education for All (BEFA) and Others. This important case, about access to textbooks for learners in Limpopo, was the fifth instalment in a protracted legal battle to ascertain whether the right to a full complement of textbooks before the start of the school year was a critical component of the right to a basic education, as enshrined in Section 29(1)(a) of the Constitution of South Africa.
SECTION27 prides itself on following a four tier strategy in all its work: public information; advice and assistance; social mobilisation; and advocacy & litigation (S Budlender, G Marcus SC and N Ferreira in ‘Public interest litigation and social change in South Africa: Strategies, tactics and lessons’ published by The Atlantic Philanthropies, 2014, Chapter 3). This strategy guided our work during the textbooks case. The overall campaign was called #TextbooksMatter. This hashtag was specifically chosen to highlight the inextricable link between the systematic denial of future prospects of black learners, their families and entire communities and the broader struggles of other poor, black, marginalised peoples the world over. This campaign involved:
An intense media campaign was conducted leading up to the hearing to ensure that its potential implications would be known by all. Numerous media outlets (broadcast, online and print) were targeted for dissemination of information so as to engage policy makers, influencers and people residing in Limpopo. Of particular importance was partnering with community media to disseminate information in all local languages (Sepedi, Tsonga, Venda and English) to learners, their parents, their teachers and other members of the community. A dialogue was also held at the historic Morris Isaacson High School. Panellists included representatives of the state, civil society and a learner.
A multimedia approach saw award winning journalist Thom Pierce profiling students from different social circumstances.
Influencers such as struggle stalwarts Ahmed Kathrada and Barbara Hogan, writers Achmat Dangor, Redi Thlabi, Justice Malala, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Sisonke Msimang and Margie Orford as well as ‘Fallist’ Shaeera Kalla spoke about why textbooks (and books in general) are important to them. They urged the powers that be to help ameliorate the lot of Limpopo learners. Cartoonists for Africa, a group of cartoonists engaged in critical commentary, also produced cartoons highlighting the importance of textbooks. These went viral on social media.
Over 800 learners, educators and concerned community members marched in Giyani from the old Parliament to the municipal buildings. Marchers lamented their failed education system and the effect this has on the rest of their lives by carrying a symbolic coffin with their hopes and dreams. This procession turned heads and helped highlight the importance of textbooks for learners and teachers.
Advocacy and litigation
The judgment, written by Navsa J. stated that “the failure of the Limpopo Department of Education (LDoE) and the Department of Basic Education (the DBE) to provide textbooks to schools in Limpopo [was] a violation of the rights to a basic education [and] equal dignity”.
By dismissing the State’s appeal, the Court reaffirmed the immediately realisable nature of the right to a basic education. The judgment also clearly articulated the State’s obligation to learners in Limpopo who have had to compete with their peers in the public education system from a position of serious disadvantage. It cannot be ignored that the learners without textbooks are poor, black, marginalised learners, primarily located in rural areas, whose rights in a democratic South Africa have not yet been fully realised. As Navsa J explained:
“Clearly, learners who do not have textbooks are adversely affected. Why should they suffer the indignity of having to borrow from neighbouring schools or copy from a blackboard which cannot, in any event, be used to write the totality of the content of the relevant part of the textbook? Why should poverty stricken schools and learners have to be put to the expense of having to photocopy from the books of other schools? Why should some learners be able to work from textbooks at home and others not? There can be no doubt that those without textbooks are being unlawfully discriminated against.” (49)
This case is also significant because it sets precedence which could potentially be a game changer in relation to future challenges in cases related to education provisioning including sanitation, infrastructure, norms and standards on school funding, among many others.
Changing rhetoric – more political will?
Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga stated that “the recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment on the provision or lack thereof of the Learning and Teaching Support Materials (LTSMs) to the Limpopo children provided us with a mirror within which to view the importance of basic education.”
She agreed that there were problems in the system when she said “sadly, it was frustrating to hear that in some of the provinces LTSM had not been delivered, and yet I had been informed otherwise. I want to stress that reports made to me as the Executive Authority must inherently be true and honest because on the basis of these reports I account to the Cabinet and National Assembly. We all know the consequences of misleading the National Assembly, thus appearing as a liar to the nation.”
Post SCA judgment work
SECTION27 and BEFA have continued with constitutional literacy work and textbooks monitoring efforts with week-long advocacy campaigns in all districts in Limpopo. While there are some improvement in textbooks delivery, to date the organisations have received reported shortages of 38, 827 books in the 2016 year. These have been reported to the State. SECTION27 has further engaged the National Department of Education, the Limpopo Department of Education and all the major political parties to ensure that this important issue continues to be in the nation’s spotlight.
 Minister Angie Motshekga, “Keynote Address by the Minister of Basic Education, Mrs Angie Motshekga, MP, at the Free State Provincial Education Summit (INDABA) held at EMOYA Estate, Bloemfontein, 25 – 26 February 2016”, 26 February 2016, http://www.gov.za/speeches/minister-angie-motshekga-free-state-provincial-education-summit-26-feb-2016-0000, accessed: 2 July 2016.
 Minister Angie Motshekga, “Speech: Council of Education Ministers’ meeting”, http://www.gov.za/speeches/minister-angie-motshekga-council-education-ministers’-meeting-10-mar-2016-0000, accessed 2 July 2016.