How the Department of Basic Education is failing South African schoolchildren

A collapsed mud classroom at Mjanyelwa Secondary School in Kayamnandi, near Mbizana.

On the 29th of November, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) finally released its reports on school infrastructure delivery for each province. The reports also marked the end of a three-year deadline for the department to improve the basic services and infrastructure of all primary schools throughout the country.

So it is now it is illegal for any school in South Africa to run without appropriate structures and basic services. Schools can now take Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, and the relevant provincial education Members of the Executive Council (MEC) to court for failing to provide basic services and infrastructure.

What is the current state of schools in SA?

According to Equal Education, there are 5,004 schools with an unreliable water supply, 4,986 schools that have only pit latrines as a form of sanitation, and 2,923 schools that have an unreliable electricity supply in South Africa.

“It really makes you very angry and sad that a human being could see children could use toilets in these conditions. It’s unconscionable for government to allow learners to learn in these types of conditions,” said Leanne Jansen-Thomas, head of policy and training at NGO Equal Education.

At Lugxogxo Junior Secondary, in Mthatha, toilets are mere holes in the cement floor.
At Lugxogxo Junior Secondary, in Mthatha, toilets are mere holes in the cement floor.

So what are the Norms and Standards for schools?

The Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure, or Norms and Standards, were originally published in 2013 by the DBE. They set different deadlines, which all provinces are required to meet, for supplying schools with services and proper infrastructure.

The first deadline (three years) was to be met this year. By the deadline, all schools in South Africa should be supplied with access to water, electricity and sanitation. Schools which are also built using inappropriate materials, such as asbestos, mud, wood and zinc, need to be replaced with proper structures, such as fire protection, ventilation systems and drainage, built according to the National Building Regulations.

The next one is a seven-year deadline, by which schools need to be supplied with electronic connectivity and with perimeter security around schools. By 2023 (the 10-year deadline), schools need laboratories and libraries. By 2030 (17-year deadline from 2013), schools must include school halls, sports fields, walkways and parking lots.

At Tyinira JSS in Butterworth, learners rely on rainwater, yet a tap with access to water from the municipality exists meters outside of the school gates.
At Tyinira JSS in Butterworth, learners rely on rainwater, yet a tap with access to water from the municipality exists metres outside of the school gates.

What is the department doing to meet these deadlines?

Each provincial education department needs to submit its infrastructure plan along with the progress it has made in meeting the norms and standards to the DBE each year. These provincial reports are supposed to be released by Minister Angie Motshekga on the 29th of November every year.

Not only were last year’s reports only released this year, but the department failed to meet the first deadline to provide all schools with basic services and proper structures by 29 November.

In a media statement, the department said that they made good progress in providing basic services (water, sanitation and power supply) both in terms of actual access to services, but also in terms of the capacity of the sector to provide these services.

Elijah Mhlanga, the media liaison for the DBE, said that the reason why the reports were late is because the minister needed to send them back to the provincial education departments for clarity with the delivery figures. “She felt it was necessary to publish information that had been checked and double checked by provinces,” said Mhlanga.

Equal Education was not pleased with how late the reports were released and the fact that the department did not meet the first deadline in the Norms and Standards. Jansen-Thomas said that Equal Education tried to get in touch with the minister and the MECs months ago to ask them to release the progress reports, but with no luck.

“It’s actually insulting for the department to want to take credit and to want the gratitude of the public for releasing those reports now, when they are a year late,” she said.

Learners at Ngweni Junior Secondary near Mthatha battle to learn in dark and cold mud classrooms.
Learners at Ngweni Junior Secondary near Mthatha battle to learn in dark and cold mud classrooms.

Why is Equal Education taking the DBE to court?

Equal Education lodged court papers against the department in May because they want certain shortfalls in the Norms and Standards regulation to be amended. In the court papers, they stated that they want government and all relevant government entities to be held accountable for providing proper infrastructure to the schools.

Jansen-Thomas said there is an “escape clause” in the regulations when it comes to this. She said that provincial education departments and the DBE are dependent on other government department entities, such as the Department of Public Works and Eskom. So if they don’t come to the table on providing services then there is nothing that the education department can do about it. Equal Education wants that gap closed in the regulations.

They want the regulations to be amended to obligate the minister to release the reports in a reasonable time of receiving them. They also want the department to appropriately upgrade and fix the schools according to the Norms and Standards.

The case will be heard early next year.

“The reason why those reports are important is that they should be available to parents, communities, teachers principals and ordinary members of the public so they can monitor infrastructure and delivery,” said Jansen.

Jansen said that the DBE filed a responding affidavit in which the minister states that there no systemic crisis in education.

The DBE’s Mhlanga said that the department has begun a process to review the Norms and Standards so it can close these gaps. “We hope somewhere between the work we are doing and the court case we will find common ground that will benefit the country,” he said.

All images taken from Equal Education’s report: Planning to fail, Summary of Findings from Equal Education’s Eastern Cape School Visits