Education International
Education International

World Congress opens with a call to action

published 22 July 2011 updated 13 September 2011

Moving poetry of hope; students dancing for joy; the stirring harmonies of South Africa’s national anthem: all these sights and sounds made the opening ceremony of EI’s sixth World Congress simply unforgettable.

“We cannot open this Congress in South Africa without remembering the enormous debt that we owe to President Nelson Mandela for what he has taught us all about the struggle for freedom and respect for human rights,” EI President Susan Hopgood said, to warm applause from 1,800 delegates and observers at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, where the plenary hall was hung with the national flags of more than 300 member unions.

At a time when public education is under unprecedented attack, teacher unions’ defence of every child’s right to quality public education is ever more crucial, Hopgood said. “Much progress has been made over the last decade and ... the number of primary age children out of school dropped from 105 million to 67 million. But we are still going to fall far short of the basic education Millennium Development Goal target by 2015.”

Hopgood attributed lack of progress towards the MDGs to a lack of political will by governments. She noted that in 2010 global military spending was $1,630 billion US, while the amount required to bridge the financing gap to achieve Education For All is only $16 billion, less than one per cent of the military budget. “Imagine what a different world it would be for millions of children if that same effort was put into achieving universal basic education!” she said.

The key note speaker at the opening ceremony was South Africa’s Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, a former activist in the mine workers’ union and militant in the African National Congress who was held in the notorious prison on Robben Island for 10 years.

Motlanthe began his address with a story about a young woman who was born in prison in 1983 during apartheid and was forced into child labour at a young age, but who now is a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town. Sadly, such “incredible human triumph over heavy odds” remains impossible for “the majority of the world’s people trapped in miserable socio-economic conditions,” he said.

For its part, the post-apartheid government of South Africa has made significant improvements in the public education system. “Since the advent of democracy in 1994 we have successfully integrated the many racially and ethnically-based education departments into one unitary national system,” Motlanthe said. “We have achieved near universal access to basic education... but the quality of education leaves much room for improvement.”

Therefore, he said, the government has declared education a national priority and is working with teacher unions on a Quality Learning and Teaching campaign and a strategic Framework for Teacher Education and Development.

Motlanthe said that in responding to the economic crisis, the government of South Africa followed the broad approach urged by EI: that is, investing in education to stimulate the economy and accelerate growth through expanding skills development, rather than cutting funding and services.

South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education Dr. Blade Nzimande, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshega, and Helen Zille, Premier of Western Cape Province, also brought greetings to the Congress. Trade union leaders who spoke included: Peter Waldorf, Chair of the Council of Global Unions; S’Dumo Dlamini, President of the Confederation of South African Trade Unions; Dennis George, President of the Federation of Unions of South Africa; and Guy Ryder, Deputy Director General of the International Labour Organisation. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, sent greetings via video and her Assistant Director-General for Education, Qian Tang, also spoke.

Representatives of the three co-hosting South African unions – NAPTOSA, SAOU and SADTU – all brought greetings and invited delegates to share in the warm hospitality of South Africa and to discover its natural beauty and cultural diversity.

To read Susan Hopgood's speech in full, please click here.