18 years after apartheid, a court ruling that the lack of textbooks in schools breached the constitution has returned to the fore the battle most South Africans still face to quality education.
A court last week found two government schools that went for five months without books in the northern Limpopo province in breach of the country's constitutional right to basic education.
AdvertisementThe case taken to court by a local rights lobby, Section 27, is in a way common of many government schools in South Africa, a regional power-house to which many countries on the continent look up.
Even in some public schools in posh suburbs of the largest city Johannesburg, there are not enough textbooks to go round.
Judge Jody Kollapen gave the education ministry until June 15 to provide the books and ordered a catch-up plan to help students make up for lost time at the Limpopo schools.
In attendance at a court hearing Tuesday, was Florence, a mother of Vukani, a six-year-old pupil. She moaned about the lack of textbooks and exercise books at her daughter's school in Giyani town.
For example, in mathematics "when you do 2x2 and you have to say 4, they put stones on the table to give the right answer because there are no exercise books", she said.
The ministry's lawyer Anna Granova tried in vain to convince the court that the lack of books was a localised "provincial issue" arising to mismanagement of funds in Limpopo.
"Here we are dealing with a provincial problem. We have two billion rands which are missing from the education budget in Limpopo," she said.
Section 27 lawyer Muzi Sikhakhane argued that "whatever the reason, the fact is that textbooks are still not there when the first exams are approaching".
"It is grave injustice to the black minors in rural areas," said Sikhakhane, decrying the fact that 18 years into a democratic South Africa, "we have to persuade the government... that textbooks are necessary to learn".
"What we are going to see in 20 years is tantamount to intellectual genocide."
Education was one of the main areas where blacks fought the racist apartheid regime, which sacrificed entire generations of blacks to the desks of a second class "Bantu" education.
Improving public schools, attended by the vast majority of South Africa's 12 million students, is often cited as a key means of slashing the extremely high levels of unemployment in Africa's largest economy.
Observers say the battle against educational inequalities is far from being won.
"The issue of shortage of textbooks ... is not isolated in Limpopo," said Lukhanyo Mangona, spokesman for an NGO Equal Education.
"We cannot quantify the number of (affected) schools, but everywhere you go you hear about these things."
The government plans to centralise the acquisition of books, to avoid similar local bungling, and to print more textbooks itself.
According to Equal Education, the worst-off schools are in rural areas or shantytowns, where families are already struggling to get by, and where teacher absenteeism is high.
"Education was the foundation upon which inequality was fashioned during the years of apartheid, but unequal educational opportunities still remain amongst the greatest obstacles to equality, dignity and freedom in today's South Africa," said Equal Education.