ADDRESS BY THE MINISTER OF EDUCATION, PROFESSOR KADER ASMAL, AT THE 11TH INTERNATIONAL MOBILITY CONFERENCE, Stellenbosch, 31 March 2003
I am pleased to welcome all the delegates and guests to this 11th International Mobility Conference, in the historic town of Stellenbosch, especially our international visitors. We trust that you will enjoy your stay in our country, on a professional level, but also as tourists, enjoying both the wonderful people and places that we have to offer. I would therefore like to thank the organisers for deciding to bring the conference to South Africa, especially at this exciting time, when we are at the initial stages of implementing our policy for special needs education, which is aimed at building an inclusive education and training system.
The commitment of the International Mobility movement to supporting and increasing the mobility of visually impaired people is fully consistent with the goals of our policy in this regard. The exchange of ideas, information and expertise through such international conferences can play an important role in supporting the implementation of inclusive education, not only in South Africa but also across the world.
The critical themes of this conference relate to mobility, training, early interventions, environmental issues, concerns about people with low vision, or who are multiply disabled, as well as curriculum design and development, and the value of residential and community based programmes. All of these are issues which the South African Ministry of Education is grappling with in the transformation of education and training in South Africa, and we therefore look forward to the recommendations arising from your discussions, which I have no doubt, will be of great value to us.
The greatest gift we can confer on people who suffer from any form of disability is to help them to help themselves. Freedom remains an illusion if there is an absence of capacity to exercise it. You are therefore part of a greater liberation movement.
Under apartheid, schools for black children with special needs and disabilities were virtually non-existent. This discrimination impacted most heavily on the poorest of the poor. We are therefore pleased to announce that this year sees the first phase of implementation towards greater equity in the provision of education for children with special needs. The main activity will be the establishment of 30 full service schools, able to accommodate a range of learners with various special needs. We will also be converting 30 current special schools into resource centres, from where they will service a cluster of schools, rather than just the learners in the institution. Finally, we will see the development of 30 District Based Support Teams, who will ensure that all barriers to learning are removed, so that children with special needs and disabilities can learn together with other children, as full members of our diverse nation.
In South Africa, we do not encourage "tolerance" or "acceptance", as if it were some burden we have to bear. Our approach is rather to celebrate that diversity, as one of the unique features of our society. The motto on our Coat of Arms sums it up well: !Ke E:/Xarra //ke - meaning Unity in Diversity. Our unity is not challenged by the diversity of our nation; in that unity is constituted by the very diversity of our people. We have 11 official languages, with "parity of esteem" between them, and we view this as a national asset, not a problem.
Of course we understand that building an inclusive education and training system is not a simple task, especially when set against the history of exclusion, injustice, discriminatory practices, and the vastly unequal distribution of resources under apartheid. We know that we cannot establish an inclusive education and training system simply by declaring it as policy and then hoping that its implementation will proceed smoothly. We have a large and complex system of education, with the Constitution identifying concurrent powers between national and provincial levels, and significant self-governance provisions for the 27 000 education and training institutions in the country. The successful implementation of this policy will therefore rely on an understanding of the real experiences and capabilities of our provincial systems, and of our education and training institutions, and the setting of achievable policy objectives and priorities, which relate to the capacity of the system.
The Ministry has therefore developed a twenty-year plan, which includes short, medium and long-term objectives. Beginning with 30 schools this year, and expanding up to 500 schools and colleges, we will incrementally develop full-service school and colleges that can, in the long term, be considered as a system wide application of inclusive education.
Inclusive Education is beginning to impact at all levels of education. This begins in early childhood, is continued through the ten years of the general education and training band, the three years of further education and training, and into higher education. Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) also needs to be sensitive to the special needs of learners. I am pleased to say that the new thinking and practices of inclusive education are impacting significantly on our national curriculum. Against the background of a very conservative apartheid curriculum theory and practices, we have begun to move the hearts and minds of people towards an inclusive model, and to the adoption of new approaches to teaching and assessment.
The Government is determined to create special needs education as an integrated component of our education system. Our major task is to change attitudes, behaviour, teaching methods, curricula and the physical environment in order to meet the needs of all our learners. The Ministry appreciates that a broad range of learning needs exists among the population at any point in time, and that where these are not met, learners may fail to learn effectively or be excluded from the learning system. We are aware of a large number of children, of school going age, who are not in school because of a disjuncture between their needs and the abilities and willingness of the school to meet these. These different learning needs arise from a range of factors including, physical, mental, sensory, neurological and developmental impairments, psycho-social disturbances, and differences in intellectual ability. But we must never exclude from this group the children traumatised, perhaps by sexual abuse, the poor and the hungry, the children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. They too have special needs, and we must therefore take into account the particular life experiences of each child, which may well include poverty and hunger.
Special needs may also arise or be compounded by the negative attitudes of teachers, parents and other children; an inflexible curriculum; inappropriate languages of learning and teaching; inaccessible or unsafe built environments; inappropriate and inadequate teaching and learning support services; the non-involvement of parents; and inadequately trained education managers and teachers.
This conference can play an important role in providing guidance on how the system can be changed, modified or adapted in order to ensure full access for learners who have visual difficulties, so that they can participate actively in mainstream economic and social life. Traditionally the focus has been on individual deficits and learners have been excluded on this basis. However, too many of the exclusionary factors relate to system deficiencies, and by removing certain barriers, learners are better able to participate within a mainstream environment. Your organisation has proved this is possible, by providing support to visually impaired learners who now actively participate in social life.
Inclusive Education is not a separate initiative in South Africa. As I have said, it is integrated into the fabric of the education reforms that our Government started in 1994. It is part of our vision for an education and training system for the 21st century. I have initiated an approach we call Tirisano, a Tswana word meaning, "To work together". This approach consciously invites all of society to become involved in education. We have some critical partners, such as our teacher unions, and the Associations of School Governing Bodies, but we have also spread the net much wider, to ensure that voices which have not been heard in the past are no longer silent. Just recently I met with the African Traditional Churches, to discuss our policy on Religion in Education. This is the largest single religious grouping in the country, and yet they had never before met with any Minister, or been asked to advise on policy matters. We are determined to ensure that the people shall govern, but not only at general elections.
The foundation of our democracy, as encapsulated in our Constitution, is the notion that our progress as a nation is dependent on the extent to which we are able to draw on the capacities of all our people. There is no qualification to this; it does not identify some people who should not contribute, and we must ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to make their contribution to building our nation. We have extraordinary talents and abilities, which were suppressed through the years of apartheid, and many of these are now starting to emerge in almost every walk of life - sport, art and culture among them.
In welcoming delegates from outside South Africa I must not exclude the South Africans who are here. In particular, I would like to congratulate the two hosts of this Conference, the John and Esther Elleman Memorial Trust and The South African Guide Dogs Association for the Blind. Both these bodies, in their different ways, have ensured that the visually impaired have real access to freedom of movement. For the South African Guide Dogs Association, a special tribute for their fifty years of existence and I wish them well for their Golden Jubilee celebrations. Their work expresses the sentiments of letsema.
I wish you well at your conference and I hope that through these deliberations, we can find ways to secure a fully inclusive education and training system - a system which will ensure that all our children, whoever they may be, and whatever they can and cannot do, are valued as national assets, and treated with the care and respect they deserve. The founding provisions of our Constitution, of which we are all very proud, spell out the values which drive us as a nation, and the first of these is "human dignity, the achievement of equality, and the advancement of human rights and freedoms". Dignity is what everyone deserves, and with your assistance we can make this a reality.
I thank you
Issued by Ministry of Education
31 March 2003