EDUCATION Minister Abraham Iyambo made an announcement shortly before Christmas last year, that primary school education will be free starting today. This is, of course, rightly only applicable to public schools, as those who opt for private education are prepared to dig deep in their pockets for the high cost of such education.
We state the latter because voices have already been raised that private schools too need to throw open their doors for free education in the fashion announced by the minister. Not surprisingly, Iyambo's announcement has elicited a uniquely raucous Namibian chorus. Those with jaundiced disposition have already gone as far as deriding the very notion of free primary education. This lot have learnt nothing from history and forgotten everything. But as sages suggest, talk is cheap but facts are sacred and, therefore, it may be beneficial to interrogate whence we got here.
A good place to start is our country's Constitution and specifically, article 20. Article 20, which deals with education, is part of chapter three. This particular chapter, generally, provides for the 'Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms' of every resident of our country.
The provisions of article 20 are unambiguous. They establish not only a right to education to all persons but, specifically, free and compulsory primary education and/or that the same rights to primary education apply to all until age 16. Section 38(1) of the Education Act ( Act 16 of 2001), repeats, almost verbatim the rights already established in article 20 of the Constitution.
It, therefore, buttresses these rights in the following manner: "All tuition provided for primary... education in state schools, including all books, educational materials and other related requisites, must be provided free of charge to learners until the seventh grade, or until the age of 16 years, whichever occurs first".
Clearly then, these rights are established in the Constitution of the land, they are sacrosanct and are incontrovertible. So while we must welcome the announcement by the minister, his actions, in this regard, neither amounted to a revolution nor are they an act of benevolence. On the contrary, it was an act of restitution!
We must give the minister kudos though, for calling the national conference on education in 2011, which served as a revelation for the education bureaucracy and which is now followed by implementation.
But the fact that this far-reaching right granted in the Constitution is only being implemented now says a lot about us as Namibians. For the message we project to all is how cavalier and apathetic we are about the greater issues of the day; and that we nonchalantly were prepared to overlook a hiatus of this scale.
Yet, we are the same lot who will not forgo an opportunity of 15 minutes of fame, on the soapbox, to wax lyrical on the debilitating effects of apartheid mis-education.
To be sure, however, it is only the scrupulous implementation of articles 20 and 23 on education and apartheid and affirmative action respectively, as dues ex machina, that we can begin to address the nightmare of our past.
It must, therefore, be scandalous that we were unwitting by-standers when government played Russian roulette with the education of our children for 22 years.
Primary education is the core and basis of any further learning. And this much even the authors of the much maligned Bantu education understood. Now that government has finally made the announcement the only way to redeem ourselves is to ensure that article 20 of the Constitution and section 38(1) of the Education Act of 2001 are rigorously implemented.
We should not entertain any excuses, budgetary or otherwise, from the authorities now that the commitment has been made to honour the Constitution. We must consider the N$50 million announced as a down payment to open the account and look forward to appropriate and substantial funding come fiscal 2013/14; for we cannot afford to be niggardly on education so late in the day.
The time-tested cliché is that if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. And given our history that is hardly the road we wish to travel. Some have raised the fact that the school development funds are provided for in the Education Act of 2001. To the extent that the law is inconsistent with the Constitution it was always illegal ab initio.
It follows, therefore that the Education Act needs to be amended at the first opportunity to be in sync with the country's Constitution. Perhaps aspects relating to donations and bequest and those relating to proceeds arising from existing investments (i.e. section 25 b & c) will survive the chop. But change it must.
It is those countries which make sound investment decisions, such as universal primary education, which will have a head start in the increasingly competitive global space. And here, it is not size but leadership that makes the difference. There is no reason why we should not be in the league of winners.
For now, compared to regional peers, the quality of our education lags behind. Providing the necessary resources for universal, compulsory and free primary education must be the start of this long but worthwhile journey.