God’s lô
man’s lô
devil’s lô
watte’ lô
sê die mense net
de lô
de lô
de lô
de lô
what abou’ de lô
what abou’ de lô

(Adam Small)

What about the law? It’s such an important question that needs to be continuously be revisited as we reflect on the arrangements in contemporary society, if we are interested in social justice at all, and if we are concerned about who benefits and who may be excluded in contemporary policy suites.

When Adam Small wrote his now well-known poem, it was written within a context in which the law was evidently but also openly biased toward Black people. The law itself needed to be re-written. So too today, laws and policies while they may not be overtly biased, interact with our social arrangements and past legacy in ways that still do privilege some and disadvantage others. In instances like these, policy advocacy is needed to change ‘the law’.

A rather good example of this is Equal Education’s campaign which led to the adoption of ‘The Minimum Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure’ in 2013 and the 2016 amendment which made it “illegal” for schools to have pit latrines. Such victories are immensely important because without them, there are few official means by which to hold government to account. 

But what happens when the laws are already in place? 

It is needless in our present situation to speak at length about how actual schooling realities fall significantly short of the norms and standards laws and policies and that much work is required to ensure that policies are implemented. 

Policies only really make a difference, if, and when, they are ‘realised’. 

It is absolutely necessary that schools comply with the minimum norms and standards, yet, even when this is realised, we will not have achieved ‘quality education’ in South Africa, after all, having a safe toilet and all the tools needed to do schooling just describes the bare minimums. What about the myriad of other laws and policies that have been produced post-1994? Corporal punishment by example has been rendered illegal in schools since 1996 (South African Schools Act) but remains a widespread practice. 

In both cases, concerning minimum norms and standards, or, concerning corporal punishment. The laws and policies have already been hard fought for and won but they have not yet been realised and they fail to have any significant impact on the daily experiences of students in South African schools. 

In these cases, different kinds of activism are required and they need not only be limited to the law. 

In short, sometimes we require the use of the legal infrastructure to hold people to account using the mechanisms that have already been in place but at other times what is required is cultural work that seeks to contest deep-seated understandings that are shaping the everyday practices of actors within the system (including law-makers).

Perhaps it is most important to remember that the law itself is a social construction and one that we must necessarily, for the sake of ‘justice’, view with a critical gaze, continually asking how we can do better. Then, we must also remember to get on with the work of ensuring that these ideals which, sometimes, are even framed in the law, become actual realities that have a bearing on our daily lives.

We can never hang up our activist shoes…1994 arrived but the majority of South Africans do not live and are not schooled in spaces that reflect what once was a ‘post-1994’ imagination. Otherwise, we will be left with only unfulfilled hopes and promises of what we have been able to write into law and the “post” years will remain a contradiction because most will not have experienced a “post” space.

Bottomup’s work with high school representative councils of learners (RCLs) includes both policy education and deepening an understanding of laws in education that are necessary for students to uphold the duties of the RCL, as well as critical engagements with existing policies, procedures and practices in schooling that may still exclude or marginalise students. Importantly, students also learn to engage in real projects that promote equity, justice and democracy in their schools.

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