Fighting for Equality in Education: Student Activism in Post-apartheid South Africa


CCC-14-0003.0 This case takes readers into the world of advocacy, and the benefits and risks of various strategies and tactics. Equal Education started in 2008 as a member-based organization with the mission of obliging the government to meet its own goals for making a decent education accessible to all South Africans. Based in Cape Town, it started with a campaign to fix broken window in a single school and grew to encompass libraries, bathrooms, and electricity. By 2012, it was nationwide with a membership of over 5,000 students. But in May 2013, it faced a dilemma. EE had sued the minister of basic education to issue basic norms and standards for school infrastructure, but she had missed yet another deadline and requested an extension. EE polled its members, who voted to deny an extension; EE legal counsel, however, advised granting it. The leadership had to decide what to do.

Students will have the opportunity to follow the growth of a grassroots organization as it matures from a local entity to one with national reach and influence. The leadership skills required at different stages keep shifting, and the learning curve of EE founders is steep.  Ask students to discuss the membership model EE adopts, and its strengths and weaknesses. They could also discuss the role of nonprofits in post-apartheid South Africa, and how civil society changes when a long-term foe is vanquished. Finally, ask them to look at the various types of protests EE adopts, from sit-ins to marches to legal suits. Which tactic seems best suited to what kind of situation? Does EE’s track record match its ambitions?

Use this case for a class discussion of the role of activism in social change. Ask how education is part of sustainable development, and who might be the natural allies of EE. The organization works for the most part within the system, including the courts—is this the best way of achieving change? What about the choice of high school students as members? Is that the correct demographic, or would it be better off restricting membership to university-level or older? What about leadership change—is it time for the founders to hand off to a new generation?

Use this case in a course/class on education reform, social activism, sustainable development or organizational management.


This case was written by Eric Smalley for the Case Consortium @ Columbia and the Global Association of MDP Programs. Funding was provided by the Open Society Foundations. (0714)

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