When two young South African learners ran into the road to pick up a fallen election poster featuring the country’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, their action did not go unnoticed. A video about the “rescue mission,” posted on social media, caught the president’s eye. He promptly invited the girls over for a chat. But the two, Aaliyah Baker and Fatima Zehra Cassiem, both aged 10, came to the meeting with a demand: they wanted cleaner toilets at their school. Ramaphosa promised to personally phone the school to remedy the problem—a telling action in a country where students have drowned in school pit latrines.
Reading this news item, I reflected on how arbitrary a way it was for citizens, particularly children, to catch their government’s attention for their concerns.
And I thought of Sidinga Uthando – a group of moms of children with disabilities based in Orange Farm, a township outside Johannesburg, who have been fighting for their children’s right to inclusive education for years. The women have long been campaigning for basics: that children with disabilities should be equally included in schools, that they should receive quality education, and that they should not have to pay school fees to access public schools.
I have witnessed how parents and children in Orange Farm, alongside many other disability rights activists and inclusive education advocates, have used all the tools, patience, and courage at their disposal to demand equal respect for their children’s rights: an online campaign, petitions, collective advocacy in schools, and various meetings with the National Department of Basic Education and the National Assembly. They have even been to the United Nations, where international experts expressed concern at the exclusion faced by children with disabilities.
Not once, however, have they been invited to meet the president.
No parent or child should ever be expected to exhaust their citizen advocacy toolbox to get the government to act on their basic obligations. Just as presidents should not need to call a school personally to fix issues. Instead, President Ramaphosa should hold ministers and senior government officials accountable, and ensure that the right to education is equally realized for all.