It is another time to commemorate the Day of the African Child. This year’s day has the closest to an apt theme I have seen in recent times: “Education for all children in Africa: the time is now”. But it is lacking something and so we must interrogate it against the aspiration behind the events that we commemorate on this day. The theme aligns with what most governments across Africa and indeed, the world have committed to – getting every child into school. This was a Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda, which falls short of the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda and way shorter of the ambition of the hereoic children who stood up to the brutal apartheid state in Soweto, South Africa 48 years ago to demand an end the unjust education system. On this day we have an opportunity to reflect on the journey this far travelled, and ask poignant questions about where we are at and the work that remains to be done.

One critical question to ask is: when is an education system unjust? An education system is unjust if it doesn’t secure educationally for ALL children what a wise parent would desire for his/her own children. So as we seek to secure education for all children of Africa, we must ask: which kind of education? It is this question that led the gallant children to what was then a suicidal mission. Indeed, an unkown number of them, variously estimated at between 176 and 700, paid the ultimate price. If we don’t ask this question now, we betray their course. An unjust education system is the substructure for enduring socio-economic and political inequities, which besides undercutting the dream of shared prosperity, also undermine societal, national and global development and peace.

Almost five decades since the upsiring, have we achieved education justice for ALL on the continent? The answer is no. But that is not the problem. The problem is the trajectory that we are on—we seem to be losing the gains of yesteryears. Today many children in Africa are trapped in schools that are no more than growth centres—lacking most of the requisite facilities and personnel that would make learning even remotely possible. Unlike the openly race-based education injustices that the children of Soweto contended with, today’s education injustices are class-based, systemic and insidious. Education systems have been designed to produce a few winners and millions of losers. Access to quality education has been hyjacked and weaponised to preserve advantage for a few to the detriment of many. Policies and investments in the sector are made to aid building of glass floors for the privileged, which double up as glass ceilings for the underprivileged majority.

Few children receive high quality education, which primes them to reap the full dividends that are certain to accrue from it. The majority attend school in circumstances that undermine their best efforts to learn that prime them for disillusioned adulthood. Many African elites have lost perspective of what the obtaining circumstances really potent for the continent. They have instead turned acquisition of academic credentials into a rat race, investing heavily in futile endeavors to privatise access to quality education and ring-fence its benefits for their children.

Cognizant of these facts, foreigners who look at Africa from afar, some of them influential global players, see an African child as a problem, a potential immigrant and a lag on the aspiration of global prosperity. On the other hand, foreigners who have worked on this continent, particularly education programming and/or financing, and their conscientious African counterparts are saddened by the pain they see African children enduring in search of the prized experience. They admire their resilience but also know that resilience is not enough to break through the barriers before them.

African children have been turned into pawns in internecine, mercantile global and domestic game of interests. These interests have taken African leaders (or should I call them rulers) hostage. Common sense, homegrown solutions to the challenges facing the education sector are overlooked in favour of, often ill-disguised, morally benighted mercantile, sometimes imperialist schemes that further entrap African children in dark channels to nowhere. Matters are made worse by the fact that in some countries, domestic mercantile and political interests are fused into an anti-universal quality education access behemoth.
Millions of children, especially girls and those with disabilities who also come from poor households and geo-politically marginalised regions are caught at the intersection of myriad disadvantages. Many are trapped in outdated cultural norms and practices, which augment their other disadvantages besides being inimical to their personal and collective educational advancement.

So, as we mark this important day, I challenge all of us to reflect on what really drove those young heroes and heroines to take on a monstrous state. It is time to acknowledge that we can and should do more to make our education systems more just for ALL children across the continent and the world. To begin with, let us divorce the child’s right to a just education from the family he/she comes from. Education is a public good. A just education is an imperative for all societies’ socio-economic and political progress, and global peace, prosperity and sustainability. Let all our decisions be informed by this understanding.

Emmanuel Manyasa, PhD
Executive Director – Usawa Agenda
X-handle: @ManyasaChebi

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