'Where are you, minister?'

"Having poor education and knowing that there's someone else somewhere receiving a better education than I am, makes me feel like a bystander in this country."

This was a sentiment conveyed in an impassioned plea by 16-year-old Phathiswa Shushwana, a Grade 10 pupil at Luhlaza High School in Khayelitsha, Western Cape.

She pointed out that hers was one of only three schools in Khayelitsha that has a library.

Phathiswa has been campaigning since last year for the School Library Policy of the Department of Basic Education to be fully implemented.

She joined other education ambassadors like Basetsana Kumalo and Nomsa Mazwai at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, at the launch of a "special call to action for Mandela Day in education", yesterday.

This is the initiative of the Nelson Mandela Institute in partnership with the Department of Basic Education, and is supported by civil society leaders to have resourced libraries in all schools by 2014.

"But even my school library is not good enough. It has an administrator but not enough books or equipment to accommodate all the pupils at Luhlaza High," Phathiswa said.

She highlighted the department's statistics that show that about 23100 schools in South Africa do not have libraries.

She related a story of how she had to copy an assignment from a peer because she did not have access to resources and research material.

She quoted Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, who said: "The best allies in education are the parents and learners. They must take a stand when their rights are being violated."

"That is what we are doing right now. So minister, here are your allies ... where are you?" Phathiswa said.

Kimberley Porteus, the executive director of the Nelson Mandela Institute, dismissed the argument by Themba Kojana, the department's chief director for Social Inclusion and Mobilisation in Education, that there were competing priorities in equipping and resourcing schools.

"Unless we give teachers a fighting chance (with proper conditions), we should not be surprised that our education system is failing our children," Porteus said.