- Human rights groups claim the South African government is "neglecting" the right to an adequate education of thousands of rural children living on commercial farms. Inadequate farm schools currently provide the only educational opportunity for farm workers' children in South Africa.
The US-based group Human Rights Watch today has released a 59-page report on South Africa's "forgotten schools" and inadequate education still given to a large part of the country's black majority population living in rural areas. The report found that the South African government's "failure to negotiate contracts with farm owners impedes children's right to basic education."
In the worst cases, farm owners have deliberately obstructed farm children's access to the schools, according to the group's report. In most of these cases, farm workers and their children were left helpless.
- Rural children attending farm schools should be enjoying the fruits of South Africa's decade of democracy, said Human Rights Watch researcher Nobuntu Mbelle. "Yet the advances made in public education elsewhere in South Africa have yielded few benefits for children on commercial farms," she added.
This so-called "neglect" of farm schools - officially known as "public schools on private property" - resulted in children's attending dilapidated schools often without running water and electricity, the US group found. Delivery of these key services is determined in contracts between the state and farm owner.
- Despite national policies enacted in 1996 that mandate contracts for all schools within six months, the government has yet to negotiate with farmers in a majority of instances, according to Human Rights Watch. This is what the group holds to be the gravest neglect of the Pretoria government.
The group's report documents cases where farm owners or managers prevent learners and teachers from getting to school by locking school facilities or obstructing access otherwise, generally due a lack of contractual arrangements. While the police and authorities from the provisional departments of education intervene on occasion to ensure access, such intervention had not prevented further interference at the same schools.
- Children who try to receive an education are caught between the landowners' private interests and the state's meagre attempt to meet its obligations, said Ms Mbelle. "The children become the unintended victims of government inaction."
Human Rights Watch found that most farm schools consist of a simple classroom, often in need of repair. "Children attend schools without drinking water or proper sanitation, putting them at unnecessary risk of disease." Regulations under the South African Schools Act of 1996 however require the state, or where applicable the landowner, to provide basic services to farm schools.
The lack of state-funded transport from homes to schools further hinders access to education in commercial farm areas. Two-thirds of the children, some as young as eight years old, who attend farm schools in Limpopo Province travel to school on foot up to 30 kilometres each morning.
- Such exhausting conditions adversely affect the ability of these children to adequately participate in activities in the classroom, the report says. "This results in poor performance, non-attendance or regular absences. In particular, girls face the risk of sexual assault when walking several hours to and from school each day."
Human Rights Watch today in a statement called on the South African government to protect the farm worker children's right to a basic education on commercial farms. "The government should insist on the speedy conclusion of contracts between provincial departments of education and farm owners in order to ensure that children get the education they need," the group added.
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