Phumzile Vilikhazi, who has an 18-year-old son with autism, writing “Today we appeal and call for justice and accountability” on a poster. © 2017 Jean Elphick/Afrika Tikkun

(Johannesburg) – South Africa has not delivered on its promises to guarantee inclusive education for children with disabilities and to ensure that they have adequate skills for employment, Human Rights Watch said today. President Cyril Ramaphosa should place children and young people with disabilities at the heart of the new administration’s priorities.

“Previous administrations have abandoned South Africa’s children and young people with disabilities,” Elin Martinez, Children’s Rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said. “The government has described its plans for children and young people with disabilities but has failed to translate them into results.”

In March 2019, Human Rights Watch spoke with 26 parents of children with disabilities and 5 young adults with disabilities in Orange Farm, a township outside Johannesburg, about their education experiences. The challenges they face exemplify the challenges faced by many more children in Gauteng province and other parts of South Africa, as documented by disability rights and inclusive education groups, and South Africa’s Human Rights Commission.

Many parents interviewed in Orange Farm said they felt let down by education officials, and staff at their children’s schools. They were concerned by the lack of equal treatment of their children and said that their children’s schools were not teaching them adequate skills to support their development, help them lead an independent life, and seek meaningful employment.

Maria Mashimbye, a local advocate for children with disabilities whose 16-year-old son Lesley goes to a special school focused on skills training in Soweto, said:

South Africa is failing the children with disabilities. In the constitution [it] says “equality” is there – but there is no such thing. I still feel that discrimination of people with disabilities is there. They are also saying free education for everyone but for people with disabilities there is no such thing.

South Africa’s national elections on May 8 gave a clear victory to the African National Congress (ANC), Ramaphosa’s party. The ANC’s manifesto states the party’s commitment to including “the needs of people with disability in all government programmes.” It acknowledges that the education, training, and health systems need “radical improvements.” Earlier this year, Ramaphosa acknowledged that South Africa has “not achieved nearly enough” regarding the rights of people with disabilities.

South Africa continues to expand its parallel, special education system for people with disabilities and those deemed to have ongoing learning barriers, preventing them from learning in an inclusive general school system. Human Rights Watch and expert groups’ research shows that social workers and education officials refer children to special schools, sometimes after a short stay in a mainstream school, but in many cases after a long and tedious process of referrals and assessments. Such referrals often prevent children’s entry into inclusive, mainstream education. This limits their access to a full cycle of basic education, to which they are entitled by law. Many children are in special schools that segregate them and do not support their holistic development or cognitive skills.

The lack of reliable enrollment data specifically about children with disabilities significantly affects South Africa’s ability to ensure that it can guarantee high-quality, inclusive primary and secondary education for people with disabilities.

An estimated 600,000 children with disabilities remain out of school in South Africa, but the government has not published accurate data. In 2015, according to government data, nearly 121,500 learners with disabilities were in “ordinary” schools. Over 119,500 learners were enrolled in special schools and, in 2017, close to 11,500 children with disabilities were on waiting lists to enroll in special schools.

Education in South Africa is not yet free for the majority of children with disabilities. South Africa’s laws do not automatically guarantee the right to free education, although most children who attend public schools do not pay school fees. But most children with disabilities in public special schools are charged fees. And many children with disabilities attending mainstream schools are charged additional fees that children without disabilities do not have to pay.

The government treats public special schools differently from other public schools. Special schools are still not listed in the national government’s publicly available annual “no-fee” schools lists. In 2019, Human Rights Watch found that, for the first time, Gauteng province listed 5 special schools as “no-fee” out of 128 special schools in the whole province. The Western Cape province’s 2017 “no-fee” schools list excluded all special schools.

In 2017, parents of children with disabilities across South Africa launched a campaign to ask the government to guarantee children with disabilities’ right to education and to remove school fees for children with disabilities.

Since 2015, leading public litigation groups, such as SECTION27 , inclusive education experts, including members of the Right to Education for Children with Disabilities Alliance (R2ECWD), and the South African Human Rights Commission have published damning reports that show the government has consistently failed to uphold basic rights for children with disabilities. Public litigation groups have taken some provincial governments to court or settled cases on issues related to enrollment, accessible material, and transport for learners with disabilities.

South Africa ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 and signed the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the African Union’s disability rights treaty – in April 2019.

The government’s human rights record has been reviewed by various United Nations expert committees, as well as the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Three UN expert bodies have called on South Africa to urgently address the lack of equal access to quality education of children and young people with disabilities; the disproportionate level of funding for special needs education, compared with funding geared toward guaranteeing an inclusive education system; and the lack of national laws protecting the right to inclusive education. They have said the government should end discriminatory practices, including by ensuring that children with disabilities do not have to pay school fees to attend public schools.

In October, the then-deputy minister of justice and constitutional development, John Jeffrey, told members of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in Geneva: “state schools for learners with special needs will be declared no-fee schools as of next year.” Yet as of May, the government had not carried out this commitment, Human Rights Watch said.

Some UN member states also called on South Africa to improve inclusive education and the situation faced by children with disabilities during the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of South Africa, an intergovernmental process led by UN member states.

The South African government should strengthen all mainstream schools to guarantee good quality and inclusive education for all learners and ensure that the national budget supports inclusive education throughout its system, Human Rights Watch said. The government should ensure that children with disabilities can enroll and get the support they need to learn in mainstream schools and end the default referral of many children with disabilities to special schools.

While building a strong inclusive education system, South Africa should urgently address discriminatory practices and adopt a national plan, supported through the national budget, to ensure that public special schools qualify as “no-fee” schools. It should urgently adopt the Norms and Standards on Resourcing of Inclusive Education to ensure all provinces allocate adequate funds to implement inclusive education. Provincial governments should factor in the costs of reasonable accommodation of learners with disabilities and ensure that schools have adequate resources to guarantee children with disabilities’ full accessibility in mainstream, inclusive schools.

“If President Ramaphosa is committed to radically improving South Africa’s education system, he should press for inclusive education as its guiding principle,” Martinez said. “He should guarantee that his government is doing everything needed to ensure that all children can equally benefit from free, good quality education.”

Children with Disabilities Sidelined

Most of the children with disabilities whose cases Human Rights Watch documented in March 2019 attended Duzenendlela primary farm school, a special school opened by the provincial government for the 2015-16 academic year. Parents expressed serious concerns at the poor state of education, including the basic facilities, teaching staff’s skills, and the curriculum, to the extent there is one. The school lacks necessary equipment for quality skills training. Some learners graduated or dropped out of the school when they turned 18 without knowing how to read and write adequately or basic skills needed for employment.

Five parents said their children attended other special schools in Johannesburg. One of them was Thabo, 11, who has cerebral palsy and moderate hemiplegia, a type of paralysis. In 2014, he had attended an inclusive early childhood development center in Orange Farm but was then referred to a special school in South Johannesburg. Elizabeth Ramakatsa, his mother, said that he thrived in an inclusive environment, while his current special school education has not supported him in learning basic skills.

“When he graduated from the [inclusive] center here in 2014, he was able to write his name, and [knew] colors, shapes,” she said. “From 2015 [when he moved to the special school] until now, I feel that maybe the special school pulled him down compared to the early childhood center, where they [children with disabilities] were treated equally.”

Barriers to Inclusive Education

In 2015, Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive report that exposed the multiple barriers, discrimination, and exclusion faced by children and young people with disabilities in education and training. Human Rights Watch found that the government was falling short in its human rights obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to guarantee that “persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.”

Human Rights Watch found serious deficiencies in the government’s 2001 White Paper 6 on special needs education, which promises to guarantee inclusive education by 2021 and aims to ensure that most children with disabilities are fully supported to learn in mainstream schools, alongside learners without disabilities.

Human Rights Watch found that the Departments of Basic Education, Health and Social Development were responsible for excluding children with disabilities from early childhood education and the first year of primary school. Education officials, doctors, and social workers tend to automatically refer many children to special schools, disregarding the government’s policy to ensure that learners enroll in mainstream schools, thus delaying their entry into basic education.

Timid Progress

In 2015, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga promised to accelerate progress toward inclusive education and to ensure that all education sectors “take responsibility for ensuring that the constitutional right of learners with disabilities to access a full cycle of quality education and support is realized in special as well as in ordinary schools.”

Since 2015, the Department of Basic Education has adopted a series of policies and financial grants as incentives for provincial governments, but this has not been translated into system-wide change or a proven commitment toward inclusive education, particularly at a provincial level. From 2018 to 2020, for example, it will roll-out a conditional grant for the provision of schools for learners with profound intellectual learning disabilities.

The policies or measures adopted, but not necessarily implemented equally, include a national Policy on Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support, designed to ensure schools and education officials provide children with disabilities with full support as needed and the national integrated Early Childhood Development Policy.

The government has also adopted the national curriculum for South African Sign Language to mainstream this language in schools and undertaken to distribute textbooks, course material, and teaching materials in Braille in schools specialized in teaching learners who are blind or are visually impaired. Legal action taken by SECTION27, a public litigation group, representing the South African National Council for the Blind for the failure to provide accessible learning materials in Braille for thousands of learners who are blind or visually impaired, triggered the commitment to provide this support.

Accounts by Parents, Learners with Disabilities

In March, Human Rights Watch interviewed nine mothers of children with disabilities and five young people with disabilities in Orange Farm, a township in Gauteng province. Human Rights Watch also conducted a focus group discussion with 23 parents or guardians of people with disabilities, which included some of the mothers interviewed individually.

Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interview and focus group discussion, how it would be used and distributed, and sought participants’ permission to include their experiences and recommendations in this report. Human Rights Watch first conducted research in the township and interviewed some of the parents for its 2015 report, in 2014.

Some of the children and young adults attend Duzenendlela Special Farm School, the only special school in Orange Farm, which provisionally opened in 2015.

Three young adults interviewed were deemed “slow learners” in mainstream schools, leading to their transfer to the special school. Government officials often use this ambiguous term for those who experience learning barriers, but they are not necessarily disabilities.

One of the adults transferred to the special school was Khutso Alfred, 19, who has dyslexia – a type of learning difficulty, but not a disability. Alfred had his primary and part of secondary education in mainstream schools, but had not received additional teaching support to manage class and exam time in secondary school. He was moved to the special school. He told Human Rights Watch he graduated without gaining the knowledge or qualification to pursue farming, which is what he was meant to learn at the special school.

Three of the young adults did not get an official certificate or accreditation, often required to seek employment or further training, from the special school.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed nine written complaints from parents who have shared their concerns with Sidinga Uthando, a parent-led local advocacy group fighting for the inclusion of children with disabilities in Orange Farm.

Human Rights Watch contacted officials at the Gauteng Department of Education on April 9, April 15, and May 20, seeking an official response to the concerns. A senior official acknowledged on April 18 receipt of the communications but the Department has not responded.

Anna Mahlalela, is the chairperson of Sidinga Uthando, a parent-led advocacy group, and the mother of Lothando, 10, a boy who has epilepsy and potentially Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD]. She said:

Lothando goes to the special school in Orange Farm. He was 7 years old when he went to a [mainstream] school in Orange Farm. They were finding difficulties with him – they said he did “naughty” things that he didn’t fit. So, in 2016, he went to the special school here. There are no grades there [children are placed in “levels” in many special schools] …

[And] lots of problems…We’re not happy with the school… There’s no water or taps in the school. Electricity was only set up this year. The water truck comes around 10. But if the water truck doesn’t come, kids are sent home. It happens often. Already five or six times in January…

Four parents have pulled their children from the school. I think two are at home, and two are in other schools…In the special school, teachers are not trained in special needs education. They need patience. The teachers are not good…[There’s] no equipment, but they say [it’s] a special school.

Where are [we] going to go? There’s no education there… [it’s] only [a] broken promise. We need to feel proud of the school.

Thoko Dlamini, a mother who has an 18-year-old son labelled a “slow learner,” said:

My child went to a “normal” school from grade 1 until grade 7. He was then moved to the special school in Orange Farm five years ago. The [previous] school called me – [a] district officer told me he had to change schools because he was learning very slowly… He had a poor upbringing and was struggling. It was because of what was going on at home…

They said they preferred for him to be in a smaller class… [they said] he couldn’t deal with bigger classes…

I feel so bad that he’s in the special school… My son will have been in the [special] school for five years – he doesn’t know anything [has not learnt skills that should be part of the school’s program] … If there’s no professional [training]…what has he been doing? …

I worry about how he will turn out after being in that school. If I pass away, what will happen to him? ...

I worry about what will happen after school. I tried to get in contact with schools he had been referred to. In one school, I paid 500R [US$34] for an assessment. It was a skills center. But it was also 2,500R [$170] for registration, and 5,600R [$381] per month as fees… I could tell them how much I could pay, and they would find a sponsor [to pay the rest].

The government should give them jobs or practical skills… something they can hold on to rather than being at home. At home, nobody [in the community] cares about them. [They’re told] “You’re not like us.”

Palesa Moketsi has two sons with disabilities, both deemed “slow learners”: one in school and one who recently dropped out of school because he was over the age of compulsory education. She said:

My son, Teboho is 19 years old and was in the [special] school [in Orange Farm] – he went there in 2015. He first started in a normal school in Orange Farm [when] he was 6 years old…When he moved to another [mainstream] school, he repeated the year… They assessed him and said he was a “slow learner.” …

I know my child is clever and smart but with this [special] school… they [teachers] call him “crazy.” But how can you call my child crazy, if they [the children] only have problems with learning? … When they [the teachers] weren’t treating them well, they didn’t view them as normal… it made [the learners] feel that way…

My son, Teboho, is sitting at home now, doing nothing. He loves learning and education. But what’s going to happen now? He wants to change for better life.

There’s no certificate. He didn’t get one [when he left the school age 18] … I asked the principal, “What’s going to happen?”. Nobody gave me answers. But… how come he graduated without a certificate?

My other son, Mosa, is 13, he’s smart. He was in a primary school from age 6 until he was 13, it was grade 7. But age 13, they moved him to a special school because he was a “slow learner.” I worried about the treatment in this special school [in Orange Farm], so I moved him to another [special] school in Johannesburg. He went through the same process – [they] assessed him based on performance … I pay 1000R [US$68] per year as school fees, and 600R [$41] for transport every month. They gave me information about the fees… they said there are forms to fill if you’re unemployed. I haven’t submitted the form, but I would like to.