On 21 March in South Africa, Human Rights Day, we remember the struggle and sacrifices made in the fight against the brutal and oppressive Apartheid regime, and we commemorate the establishment of a democratic South Africa which embraces human rights.
However, despite South Africa having constitutionalised human rights, many of these rights have not been realised for people living in South Africa. The Bill of Rights, which is at the cornerstone of our Constitution, gives special attention to the protection and promotion of children’s rights. Section 28 of the Bill of Rights states that all children have the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation.
Therefore, it is with concern that we note the repeated incidents of adults and the State failing to uphold their duty as caregivers to protect the rights of children.
We are aware of the incident that occurred on 1 March 2021, involving the principal at Luthuthu Junior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape who is being accused of coercing a Grade 4 learner into lowering himself in a pit latrine to retrieve his cellphone. The learner undressed, had a rope tied around his upper body, and was lowered down into the pit latrine, and was made to search through the raw sewage for his principal’s cellphone.
SECTION27 and the Centre for Child Law are appalled by the actions of the principal in this incident. The principal not only failed in his duty to protect the learners under his care but also coerced a learner into performing an extremely dangerous task in a humiliating and degrading manner. This principal’s behaviour must be condemned in the strongest sense.
While in this instance, the principal faces charges of attempted murder and has been suspended following the incident, incidents of educators and education authorities failing to uphold their constitutional duties to protect the rights of learners is not a new occurrence.
SECTION27 and partners have, even before the tragic death of the young Michael Komape in 2014, been engaging the Department of Education (“DBE”) to address the historical problem of pit latrines that continue to be used in public schools. Each year, reports of learners dying from falling into pit latrines surface. These sanitation structures are undignified. They were banned in 2013 and were meant to have been completely eradicated by 2016. Yet more than 3000 schools continue to rely on pit-latrine toilets to this day. The continued use of these unsafe sanitation structures is a clear violation of the rights of children to be protected and not exposed to danger.
Over the years, SECTION27 and the Centre for Child Law have also sought to protect learners from violence in schools, including corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was banned in schools in 1996, and the Constitutional Court affirmed the constitutionality of the ban. Yet, SECTION27 and the Centre for Child Law continue to receive complaints of learners who have been physically assaulted by their teachers. Corporal punishment is still very prevalent across schools in South Africa – according to the General Household Survey conducted in 2019, more than one million learners were subjected to corporal punishment in schools.
However, professional bodies such as the South African Council for Educators and the DBE are failing to deal with these incidents and penalise educators who break the law and threaten learners’ safety. The result is that children are routinely subjected and exposed to abuse in schools and have their human rights violated by those tasked with protecting them.
On this Human Rights Day, we call on government and professional bodies to ensure, as custodians of children’s rights, that the rights of children to basic education and dignity are taken seriously. Children’s rights are Human Rights!
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