June 16th: Commemorating the Soweto Uprising and Reflecting on the Right to Education in South Africa

June 16th: Commemorating the Soweto Uprising and Reflecting on the Right to Education in South Africa
The Right to Education in South Africa

As we commemorate Youth Day and remember the Soweto Uprising we discuss how the law and education intersect

Michael Visser
Michael Visser - Head of Services
5 June 2024

June 16th is a significant public holiday in South Africa, recognized as Youth Day. This day commemorates the Soweto Uprising, a pivotal event in the country’s history that began on June 16, 1976. On that day, thousands of Black students in Soweto protested against the apartheid government’s decision to impose Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. The peaceful demonstration turned tragic when police opened fire on the students, leading to widespread violence and international condemnation of apartheid.

The Legacy of the Soweto Uprising

The Soweto Uprising was more than a protest against an oppressive educational policy; it was a powerful statement against the broader system of apartheid and racial discrimination in South Africa. The courage and sacrifice of the students highlighted the critical role of education in the fight for freedom and equality.

The Right to Education in South Africa Today

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has made significant strides in establishing a more equitable education system. The right to education is enshrined in the South African Constitution. According to Section 29 of the Constitution:

  1. Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education.
  2. Everyone has the right to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

These provisions underscore the government’s commitment to ensuring that all citizens have access to quality education. However, the practical implementation of these rights presents various challenges.

Fee Exemptions at Government Schools

In South Africa, the government recognizes that not all families can afford school fees, and thus provisions for fee exemptions are in place to ensure that financial constraints do not hinder access to education.

Right to Fee Exemptions

The South African Schools Act (SASA) allows parents to apply for fee exemptions at public primary and secondary schools. This ensures that children from low-income families can still access quality education.

Types of Fee Exemptions

  • Full Exemption: For parents whose annual income is less than ten times the annual school fees.
  • Partial Exemption: For parents whose annual income is between ten and thirty times the annual school fees.
  • Conditional Exemption: For parents who do not qualify for full or partial exemption but can demonstrate financial hardship.

Application Process

  1. Obtain the Application Form: Forms are available from the school’s administration office.
  2. Complete the Form: Provide all required information, including proof of income, expenses, and any other relevant financial documentation.
  3. Submit the Application: Return the completed form and supporting documents to the school principal.
  4. School Governing Body Review: The School Governing Body (SGB) will review the application and make a decision based on the provided information.
  5. Notification: Parents will be notified in writing of the outcome of their application.

Can Schools Deny Valid Applications?

No, schools cannot arbitrarily deny valid applications for fee exemptions. The South African Schools Act mandates that fee-paying schools must consider and process fee exemption applications in a fair and transparent manner. Denial must be based on valid grounds and must be communicated clearly to the applicant.

Withholding Access to Reports and Activities

According to SASA, public schools are prohibited from withholding report cards, refusing access to extra-mural activities, or preventing students from participating in school trips based on unpaid fees. This ensures that all students, regardless of their financial situation, have the opportunity to fully participate in the educational experience.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)

To facilitate access to further education, the government established the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). NSFAS provides financial assistance to students from low-income families who wish to pursue higher education.

  • Eligibility: Students from households with an annual income of R350,000 or less are eligible for NSFAS funding.
  • Application Process: Eligible students can apply online through the NSFAS website or at designated application centres. The application requires proof of income and academic records.
  • Responsibilities: Recipients of NSFAS funding are required to maintain satisfactory academic progress and may need to participate in community service or work-study programmes.
  • Mismanagement Scandals: Despite its noble intentions, NSFAS has faced scandals involving the mismanagement of funds. These issues have led to delays in disbursement and reduced the effectiveness of the scheme, ultimately impacting students' ability to access education.

Protections Against Third Parties

Students funded by NSFAS often rely on third-party service providers, such as accommodation providers. If NSFAS payments are delayed or not made, these providers may threaten to withdraw their services. However, students have legal protections:

  • Consumer Protection Act: Under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), students are protected against unfair practices by service providers. Accommodation providers must adhere to the terms of the lease agreement, and any attempt to evict students without due process can be challenged legally.
  • Interim Relief: Students can seek interim relief from the courts to prevent eviction or service withdrawal while awaiting NSFAS payments.

Legal Steps Against NSFAS

If NSFAS unreasonably withholds funding, students can take practical legal steps:

  • Administrative Appeals: Students can file an appeal with NSFAS, citing the reasons for their need and any administrative errors.
  • Legal Action: If the appeal process fails, students can take legal action against NSFAS. Under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA), students have the right to challenge administrative decisions that are unlawful, unreasonable, or procedurally unfair.
  • Ombudsman: Students can also seek assistance from the Higher Education Ombudsman, who can investigate complaints against NSFAS and recommend appropriate actions.

Current Educational Landscape: Progress and Challenges


  1. Increased Access: There has been a significant increase in school enrolment rates, with near-universal access to primary education.
  2. Improved Infrastructure: Many schools have seen improvements in infrastructure, including new classrooms, sanitation facilities, and learning materials.
    • Pit Toilets: Despite efforts to improve school infrastructure, the use of pit toilets remains a severe issue, particularly in rural areas. The South African Schools Act mandates that schools must provide safe and hygienic sanitation facilities. Additionally, the Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure, introduced in 2013, require that schools be equipped with adequate sanitation facilities that ensure the safety and dignity of students. The ongoing use of pit toilets not only endangers students' health but also violates their right to a safe and dignified learning environment. The failure to fully eradicate pit toilets highlights a significant gap between policy and practice.
    • Sanitation and Hygiene: The Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill further emphasizes the need for proper sanitation, stipulating that schools must comply with specific standards for hygiene and safety. Despite these legal frameworks, many schools still lack adequate facilities, exacerbating educational inequalities and impacting students' well-being and academic performance.
  3. Policy Reforms: Various policy reforms aimed at improving the quality of education, teacher training, and curriculum development have been implemented.

Persistent Challenges

  1. Quality of Education: Despite increased access, the quality of education remains uneven. Many schools, especially in rural areas and townships, lack adequate resources, qualified teachers, and effective management.
  2. Socio-Economic Inequality: Socio-economic disparities continue to impact educational outcomes. Students from low-income families often face additional barriers, including lack of access to early childhood education, malnutrition, and limited support at home.
    • Sanitation: Poor sanitation facilities are more prevalent in schools serving low-income communities, exacerbating inequalities. The government's commitments to eradicate pit toilets, as outlined in the Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure, have seen slow progress, leaving many students in unsafe conditions.
  3. School Safety: Safety in schools is a growing concern, with incidents of violence, bullying, and inadequate infrastructure posing risks to students and staff.
    • Legal Protections: The South African Schools Act requires schools to ensure a safe environment for students, including measures to prevent violence and bullying and ensuring that physical infrastructure is safe. Additionally, the Occupational Health and Safety Act mandates that school environments must meet safety standards to protect students and staff.
    • Recent Incidents: Tragically, there have been recent incidents of students dying during school trips, highlighting serious lapses in safety protocols. Parents can expect schools to implement comprehensive safety measures, including adequate chaperone supervision, risk assessments, and emergency response plans. The legal duty of care schools have towards students is critical, and failures in this regard can lead to legal consequences for the institutions involved.
    • Addressing School Bullying: If your child is being bullied, take the following legal steps:
      1. Document the Incidents: Keep a detailed record of all bullying incidents, including dates, times, locations, and any evidence.
      2. Report to the School: Inform the teacher and escalate to the principal if necessary. Provide documented evidence.
      3. Formal Complaint: Send a written complaint to the school and request a written response.
      4. Engage the SGB: If unresolved, present the case to the School Governing Body.
      5. Mediation: Seek mediation through the Department of Basic Education or an independent mediator.
      6. Escalate: Report to the provincial Department of Education if the school fails to act.
      7. Legal Action: Consider obtaining a protection order or civil litigation against the school for negligence.
      8. Consult Legal Professionals: Seek advice from a lawyer specialising in education law.

Conclusion: The Interplay of Law and Education in South Africa

As we reflect on the legacy of the Soweto Uprising and the ongoing struggle for equitable education in South Africa, it becomes evident that law plays a crucial role in shaping the educational landscape. The right to education, enshrined in the Constitution, serves as a beacon of hope for millions of South African children, promising them the opportunity to fulfil their potential and contribute to the nation's progress.

However, the mere existence of legal protections is not enough to ensure meaningful access to education. Implementation, enforcement, and accountability are equally critical. From fee exemptions and NSFAS funding to the eradication of pit toilets and the prevention of school bullying, the law provides a framework for addressing systemic inequalities and safeguarding the rights of every learner.

Yet, the impact of education transcends mere compliance with legal mandates. Education has the power to transform lives, uplift communities, and drive societal change. By providing quality education to all learners, regardless of their background or circumstances, South Africa can nurture a generation of informed citizens who are empowered to advocate for justice, equality, and human rights.

Conversely, education also influences the evolution of the law. Informed, educated citizens are better equipped to engage with legal processes, advocate for legislative reforms, and hold authorities accountable. As students become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and active participants in civil society, they contribute to a more robust democracy and a more just society.

Therefore, the journey towards achieving the full promise of the right to education in South Africa requires a multifaceted approach. It demands not only legislative action and policy reforms but also sustained efforts to address the root causes of educational inequities, promote inclusive practices, and foster a culture of lifelong learning.

As we commemorate June 16th and honour the sacrifices of those who fought for educational justice, let us recommit ourselves to the pursuit of a future where every child has the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive. Through collective action, guided by the principles of justice, equality, and solidarity, we can build a nation where education is not just a right but a transformative force for social change.

Together, let us uphold the inherent dignity and worth of every learner and strive to create an educational system that reflects the aspirations of a truly democratic and inclusive society.

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