Human Rights: Upholding the right to education

20 March 2024 ,  Sharne Losper 907
The right to education is outlined in section 29 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (hereinafter “the Constitution”). This section guarantees that everyone has the right to basic education and the right to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible. In South Africa the right to basic education can be described as a fundamental socio-economic right, that is, an entitlement to conditions and resources necessary for the material well-being of people.  

Article 1 of the World Declaration on Education for All defines basic education as: “an education which provides essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy, and problem-solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values and attitudes) required by human beings to be able to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decision, and to continue learning”.  To illustrate the extent to which the right to education is safeguarded and promoted in South Africa, the Supreme Court of Appeal case of Minister of Justice and Correctional Services and others v Ntuli [2024] 1 All SA 333 (SCA) will be set out and evaluated. 

The rights of prisoners
In November 2023, the Supreme Court of Appeal handed down a landmark judgement in which it provided prisoners with the right to use their personal computers while incarcerated to advance their online studies. 

In the aforementioned matter, the respondent, Mr Ntuli who is serving a 20-year prison sentence sought to pursue a computer studies course through Oxbridge Academy with his family's support. He requested permission to use his personal computer in his cell for his studies. However, his request was denied, citing the prison's educational policy prohibiting personal computers in cells. 

Mr Ntuli consequently initiated legal proceedings in the Gauteng Division of the High Court, Johannesburg, challenging the Policy Procedures Directorate Formal Education, which resulted in his denial to use his personal computer in his cell for studying purposes. Acting Judge Matsemela held that this policy creates an unjustifiable limitation on Mr Ntuli's constitutional right to further education in terms of section 29(1)(b) of the Constitution and thus amounted to unfair discrimination in terms of the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 (hereinafter the “Equality Act”).
As a result, the High Court declared that Mr Ntuli has the right to use his personal computer in his cell, without internet access, for as long as he remains a registered student with any recognised tertiary institution in South Africa. Upon appeal, this position by the High Court was reaffirmed.

It should be noted that Mr Ntuli was not prevented from enrolling in a computer studies course, his ability to pursue this course of study was merely restricted. Hence an application was brought to extend the time in which Mr Ntuli could have access to his personal laptop by allowing him to do so in his cell. 

In its Judgement, the Supreme Court of Appeal relied on the case of Whittaker & Morant v Roos & Batemen  where it was held that: “True, the plaintiffs’ freedom had been greatly impaired by the legal process of imprisonment, but they were entitled to demand respect for what remained. The fact that their liberty had been curtailed could afford no excuse for a further illegal encroachment upon it.”

To conclude, the case of the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services and others v Ntuli serves as a significant milestone in the protection and enforcement of the right to further education in South Africa, as outlined in section 29(1)(b) of the Constitution. Through this legal precedent, the Supreme Court of Appeal affirmed the fundamental principle that every individual, including prisoners, has the right to education. By declaring the prison policy prohibiting personal computers in cells as an unjustifiable limitation on Mr Ntuli's constitutional right to education, the court affirmed the principle of non-discrimination and the importance of providing equitable access to educational resources.

Furthermore, by granting Mr Ntuli the right to use his personal computer for educational purposes in his cell, subject to reasonable conditions, the court affirmed the principle that educational access should not be unduly hindered by institutional policies. Ultimately, the Ntuli case serves as a compelling reminder of the enduring commitment of the South African legal system to uphold and protect the right to education as a fundamental human right. It reinforces the principle that even in the most restrictive of environments, the pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement must be safeguarded, ensuring that individuals can fulfil their potential and contribute meaningfully to society.

Disclaimer: This article is the personal opinion/view of the author(s) and is not necessarily that of the firm. The content is provided for information only and should not be seen as an exact or complete exposition of the law. Accordingly, no reliance should be placed on the content for any reason whatsoever and no action should be taken on the basis thereof unless its application and accuracy have been confirmed by a legal advisor. The firm and author(s) cannot be held liable for any prejudice or damage resulting from action taken on the basis of this content without further written confirmation by the author(s). 
Related Expertise: Dispute Resolution