Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo elected into Congress

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Camila Vallejo’s fight for better education mirrors South Africa’s own cause for change.
Two weeks ago Camila Vallejo, the main spokesperson of the Confederation of Chilean Students (Confech) and the most visible leader of the 2011 Chilean student protests, was elected to Congress.

The 25-year-old woman, a member of the Central of Committee of the Communist Youth of Chile, was elected on November 17 and will take over next March as the Deputy of the Chamber of Deputies for the 26th district.

The unconventional leader–a woman in her twenties, who rocks a nose ring and just finished her degree in geography–turned to Twitter after hearing the news: “We’re going to celebrate our triumph on the streets of La Florida,” referring to Santiago.

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If you haven’t heard of Vallejo, here’s a rundown: Her rise as an influential, political leader came in the heat of the Chilean student protests. For three years thousands of students, including Vallejo who was head of the University of Chile’s student body, participated in marches, sit-ins and other protests in an effort for free and improved education. The protests were covered nationwide by The Guardian, The New York Times, and other publications. Vallejo said it was the key to breaking “the cultural hegemony of the neoliberal model imposed on Chile during the military dictatorship.” It also shaped the 2013 electoral campaign: Michele Bachelet (Chile’s first female president and current leading nominee) promised, if elected, “to implement tax reforms to finance an overhaul of education.”

“We were elected because Chile changed,” Vallejo told foreign correspondents in a meeting held last last week. “Given the result of the elections, we have a majority that allows us to make structural changes.”

Vallejo got involved because education wasn’t just a student issue; it was a symptom of what was wrong with Chile.

Can the same be said about education in South Africa? Twenty years after the end of apartheid, South Africa still remains the hub for unequal education, between white, black, and coloured people, and between affluent and poor areas.

“Transformation in schools such as infrastructure and quality education is a painstakingly slow process and the school children suffer the most,” explains Lusisipo Piyose, a SANGONeT Volunteer. “This is especially true in township and rural schools where little has changed since the apartheid regime, and not just in terms of school resources but in the quality of the education students receive.”

A recent report by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) released on 20 August, titled, A proposal for undergraduate curriculum reform in South Africa’ found that less than 5 percent of African and coloured students in higher education complete their studies whilst on average white students’ completion rates are 50 percent higher than African students. The report also highlights that over 50% of first year entrants do not complete their studies.

Even The World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index for 2012–2013 ranked South Africa’s overall education system at 140 out of 144 countries, and its maths and science education at 143 out of 144.

“It is an uncontested fact that there are vast disparities in the quality of education provided to children at different public schools in South Africa,” states Pierre De Vos’ in his article, “Unequal education: The Problem with Providing Learning for All. He continues, “How to address this injustice has become one of the most intractable but emotionally laden issues in South Africa.”

edukashionSouth Africa and Chile may be in the same league in regards to education, but if Vallejo represents a change for Chile, who is the equivalent for South Africa? Are there any?

There are non-governmental organisations such as Equal Education that promotes the right for students to have access to equal quality education regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. The organisation comprises of community members and students.

But what about student-based organisations? Within schools are Student Representative Councils (SRCs), which are elected by the students and are supposed to represent any grievances made by the students. They are usually in the forefront of student protests in their schools.

Contrary to media reports, protests are usually the last resort for students when they have not been heard by teacher or the school governing bodies, according to Piyose.

One organisation that has seen progress through protesting is the South Africa Students’ Congress (SASCO), who strives to achieve a non-sexist, non-racial, working class biased and democratic education system. Mirroring Vallejo’s own efforts, last July, SASCO embarked on a nation-wide march across the Republic of South Africa. The march began with campus protests in all SASCO branches in the country, followed by provincial marches in all provinces. The national march, initially directed to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DhET) head office in Pretoria, to get the minister of education Angie Motshekgwa to attend to the Norms and Standard Act for infrastructure in schools, was post-posted.

The marches remained peaceful with students singing and cheering. In various articles, the two names mentioned to represent the group was SASCO provincial secretary, Sello Nkatho, and deputy secretary-general Luzuko Buku. Nkatho told Times Live that it was unacceptable that higher learning institutes increased their fees between eight and 12 percent every year.” These two student leaders have the potential to cause as much buzz as Vallejo has.

“South African students need a vibrant national student organisation that is visible and resourceful, that I don’t think is found with SASCO. One that will effectively deal with student grievances in primary schools and high schools,” suggest Piyose.

Nkatho has joined student leaders in other debates for better education, including UCT’s DA Student’s Organisation (DASO), which is made up of 18-22 year-old students. In a debate in March 2012, on UCT’s admission policy, DASO and SASCO fought for students with a similar background and education to be able compete on the same terms for a spot at UCT. UCT’s admissions policy uses race as a proxy for classifying students as disadvantaged.

”Too often student organisations are not given the power to address their issues resourcefully or even get access to relevant government bodies,” says Piyose.

The government has recently made an effort to change that. In October, the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimande sent out a press release explaining the launch for the South African Further Education and Training Student Association (SAFETSA), which has the potential to fill the gap between students and government. Their hope is to limit student protests in the sector and to provide a platform for students to engage on issues in a more civil scenery.

Piyose thinks its too soon to tell if SAFETSA will be effective for students: “I do hope that this is not a one-off occasion but one that remains a permanent body as this will improve communication between government and stake holders which will also improve education policies and education in general.” She continues, “Hopefully this will be a platform where students get to be heard and not be intimidated by bureaucratic government structures.”

Vallejo’s seat in congress not only represents the significant impact she’s had on Chilean citizens, but the Chilean citizens decision to vote in a radical direction. The nation-wide coverage that made its way to America, Europe, and South Africa, showed people just how much a new generation will work for the next generation’s future. (Besides Vallejo, three other 20-year-old students from student organisations have been elected to congress.)

But what can South Africa do? Vallejo told foreign correspondents that “social movements are pressuring many sectors that were not in favor of change before and that have now changed their mind.”

Is the answer to South Africa’s education problem a need for stronger social movements? If Vallejo’s success has showed us one thing, it’s that a strong voice and national recognition are powerful tools. After all, the world is rooting for progress.

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