South Africa's teens fight for better schools

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Masiyile High School in Khayelitsha township joined a distinct minority earlier this month.

It has a library. With books.

More than 100 teenagers from various schools — many of them members of Equal Education, a youth activist group — gathered on a Friday afternoon to celebrate the opening of Masiyile High's library, which boasts some 3,000 books.

Masiyile technically already had a library but the shelves were empty and it was locked 24 hours a day.

Most South African schools have no library. The Department of Education statistics look like they’re from the days of apartheid: just 21 percent of government-funded schools have a library; only 8 percent are actually stocked with books. Nearly all of those are at formerly white schools.

A generation ago, teenage activists were a crucial part of the anti-apartheid movement. Now South African youths are organizing to press for better education.

South Africa's constitution promises youths access to education but the problem is that they’re not actually receiving it.

Most youths who join Equal Education are budding activists looking for a cause. Weekly youth groups discuss issues linked with education, such as unemployment and xenophobia and these conversations shift their perceptions of equal opportunity and education.

Teens involved with Equal Education — they call themselves "Equalizers" — are learning how to think critically, engage others and get the government to improve education policies. This year, they collected 65,000 signatures for a petition that called for a library and librarian in every school across the country; marched to the parliament building in Cape Town and the presidential Union Building in Pretoria; held a hunger strike; and even showed up early to school as part of an anti-tardiness campaign.

A couple of years ago, young people here succeeded in replacing 500 broken windows at Luhlaza High School but they met with some resentment from adults who had been unable to achieve the same results, said Yoliswa Dwane, head of Equal Education’s Policy, Communication and Research Department.

"People outside like that achievement and invite us into their community,” Dwane said. “But people who are here felt threatened."

Equal Education’s strategy has evolved in its few years of existence and now it gives more emphasis to partnering with various constituents rather than just focusing on results.

Equal Education has learned from the Treatment Action Campaign, a South African activist group that used a human rights approach toward HIV/AIDS that helped to revolutionize society's attitudes and the government's health care policy. The Treatment Action Campaign — which shares leadership with Equal Education — takes complex ideas about science, HIV, and human rights, and breaks it down into simple language.

Equal Education is taking a similar approach by educating youths to become advocates and implementers of change.

Parents who don't have much formal education themselves often lack the confidence to press for better schools for their children. For example, thousands of schools do not have toilets or electricity.

"They feel intimidated by the teachers who seem much more educated, even if they're failing their kids," Dwane said. "You don't really need to be educated to understand that there's something wrong."

Libraries are a case in point. Studies show that regular access to school libraries has a direct and significant impact on school performance. Latest data for the Western Cape province, where Cape Town is situated, show literacy pass rates of 39 percent for third graders in poor black communities, which by sixth grade drops to just 26 percent (compared to 89 percent and 86 percent,  respectively, in formerly white schools).

In other words, for many kids, a library at the end of high school is too late to have much impact on their academic careers. But for a largely illiterate community, the importance of a library is not necessarily evident.

Aside from the reality that no access to reading materials stunts literacy, the curriculum requires students in older grades to do outside research. In Khayelitsha township — Cape Town's largest with nearly 750,000 residents and 54 schools — there are only five community libraries. They’re typically packed in the afternoon, and are not geared toward student needs.

In contrast, Masiyile’s new collection of books was culled from donations made to the Bookery, an Equal Education outpost a minute’s walk from parliament.

Samukelo Nombembe, who has been an English teacher at Masiyile High for a decade, emphasized the need to create a regular library period for each class so that it doesn’t wind up as some sort of ornament to show off for visitors.

Masiyile is the third school library that Equal Education has helped to open this year. While it’s a step in the path to creating a culture of literacy at one school, it also represents a community cutting their teeth as education activists.

"Ultimately,” Dwane said, “these young people must take action on other issues in their communities."