As up to 100 pupils cram into a single classroom, incensed parents head to court to force Eastern Cape to act
Zandile Matola dreams of becoming a doctor.
But at school, the 14-year-old has to share a single desk with four, sometimes five, other children.
She shares a chair with two others.
Zandile is one of 86 pupils in the Grade 8C class at Attwell Madala Senior Secondary in Mthatha.
She says it is hard to focus in a class with so many pupils, and there’s so little space in the classroom that teachers and pupils can barely move around.
“The reason I want to be a doctor is because I love the career and love to help others in need. But all that I want to become in life depends on me having to go through the experience of learning in this school. It is painful to be a pupil here. It is like we are the forgotten generation,” she says.
When City Press visited the school last week, most of the dilapidated prefab classrooms – with broken windows, doors and floors – were overcrowded.
In the Grade 10 C2 class, there were 84 pupils in one room, sandwiched into the few available desks.
In the Grade 10 A1 class, which has 85 pupils in it, a teacher and pupil were rushed to hospital two years ago when they nearly broke their legs trying to run away from a snake that had sneaked into the classroom from underneath the broken wooden floor.
Next door in the Grade 10 A2 class, there are 79 pupils, while the two other Grade 10 classes have 67 pupils each.
As they sat to write a physical science test, the uncomfortable children appeared to be desperate for breathing room.
Attwell Madala Senior Secondary is one of four overcrowded schools referred to in a court case that parents have opened against Eastern Cape Education MEC Mandla Makupula.
They are seeking an order to force him to intervene where schools are in dire need of more classrooms, enough desks and chairs, and structurally sound buildings.
Although the action was launched by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) on the parents’ behalf in the Mthatha High Court more than a month ago, Makupula has neither responded to their court papers nor provided any more classrooms.
The other schools are Enduku Primary & Junior Secondary School in Engcobo, Dudumayo Senior Secondary School in Mqanduli and Mnceba Senior Secondary School in Ntabankulu.
Ndoyisile Fudumele, a father of two pupils in grades 10 and 12 at Attwell, said it was painful to watch his children learning under such inhumane and harsh conditions.
Fudumele, the chair of the school governing body, said that approaching the courts had been the parents’ last resort after many attempts to convince the department to intervene fell on deaf ears.
“That school is horrible. Not only are the classrooms congested and not conducive for learning and teaching, but the whole school infrastructure is appalling. The roofs are leaking. There are no ceiling boards. There are no window panes and no proper fencing, making pupils and teachers vulnerable to thugs roaming around the school,” he said.
“We have been asking the department to build new classrooms for years, but there has been no response. Parents raised funds on their own and bought temporary structures to place inside the school just to ease the pressure inside the overcrowded classrooms,” Fudumele said.
“In some of the classrooms, you find 90 to 100 pupils in one classroom. How are they supposed to pass in that situation? At the end of the year, we are all shocked when the Eastern Cape comes last in the matric results. But the MEC cannot even provide a proper learning environment for our kids.”
Lungakazi Jiya, the chair of Enduku’s school governing body, said: “Nobody takes us seriously because we live in rural areas. We live in a different South Africa, not the one that was liberated in 1994, because we are not benefiting from democracy. Our children are being punished by our government because we cannot afford to send them to private schools.”
Jiya’s child graduated from the school four years ago, but her seven-year-old grandchild is now in Grade 1.
“In Grade 1, for instance, you have 300 children who have to be divided into three classrooms at least, which means you have 100 small children packed into one class. How are children supposed to learn under those circumstances?” she asked.
Jiya said the provincial government promised to build more classrooms and then brought prefab buildings four years ago, and never returned.
The prefabs are freezing in winter and swelteringly hot in summer.
“The structure we have is old and was built by the Transkei government many years ago. We have about 1 300 pupils at the school this year and overcrowding is the biggest challenge. We need at least six more classrooms, preferably more,” she said.
“At the moment, our children are crammed into small classrooms like sardines and no one cares because they are children of uneducated, poor, rural people. I wish the courts would grant us this order so that government can start to respect the children of poor people and not let them get a sub-standard education.”
Jiya said that, whenever they complained, the department told them there were other schools that were worse off, and those had been prioritised.
The LRC said overcrowded classrooms undermined children’s right to a basic education as enshrined in section 29 of the Constitution.
It also said that the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, published in 2013, state that “acceptable” classrooms contain at most 40 pupils.
Overcrowding, the LRC said, had now reached “crisis levels” at the four schools.
“At Mnceba, which has 12 classes with more than 80 pupils and two classes with more than 100 pupils, it has resulted in teachers holding classes outside under trees,” it said.
“Enduku has six classrooms with more than 70 pupils, and almost all the classrooms at Dudumayo have more than 80 pupils and four classes have more than 100 pupils.”
Provincial education spokesperson Malibongwe Mtima would only say that they were “still busy” with their lawyers and would file responding papers soon.
Meanwhile, Attwell, which was built in 1976, has no science or computer laboratory, no library and one of the classrooms had to be converted into a staff room for teachers.
Zandile is trying not to give up hope.
“As you can see, the windows are broken and on cold days we can really feel it in our bones. A single chair is shared by three people because of the overcrowding and shortage of furniture,” she said.
“A desk meant for two people is shared by four and sometimes five. We want to call on government to build our school.”
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