OPINION | A perfect storm: The struggle for school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape

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ET Thabane Primary in the Eastern Cape, with close to 2 000 pupils, needs more mobile classrooms in order to comply with physical distancing measures. Photo: Groundup/ Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.
ET Thabane Primary in the Eastern Cape, with close to 2 000 pupils, needs more mobile classrooms in order to comply with physical distancing measures. Photo: Groundup/ Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

The national education department as well as the Eastern Cape education department have not shown the consistent political will to ensure that schools in the province are fixed with the urgency needed, writes Elizabeth Biney, Hopolang Selebalo and Jane Borman.

At Tantseka Primary School in Mthatha, over 200 pupils have been relieving themselves in the open air.

At Masizame Junior Primary, a mud school in Centane near Butterworth, 175 pupils have been using one broken toilet. And 147 schools in the Eastern Cape recently had their water supply cut off because the Eastern Cape Department of Education owes the Amathole District Municipality R8 million.

As Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane was set to deliver his 2021 State of the Province Address, Equal Education (EE) learner and parent members and staff held a picket outside of the Eastern Cape legislature to highlight the situation at these schools.

When Mabuyane came out to speak to us, pupils wanted to confront him with the faces of those who suffer the worst school infrastructure backlogs in the country. We wanted to confront him with the faces who suffer undignified and dangerous infrastructure, the government's seeming inability to curb the crisis and the consequences of defunding basic education.

For years, government has placed less importance on basic education when deciding how to spend its money.

With the tabling of the national budget last month, came an education budget decrease for the next three years if inflation is taken into account. In 2020, following the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, National Treasury cut R1.7 billion from school infrastructure grants.

No budget

A further R4.4 billion was reprioritised within the Education Infrastructure Grant (EIG) to finance the Department of Basic Education's (DBE) Covid-19 response.

The DBE soon announced it would either stop or delay nearly 2 000 infrastructure projects across the country. In the Eastern Cape, it was reported that the provincial education department had suspended almost all building projects because there is not enough money for their completion. These budget cuts and their impact on providing urgently needed school infrastructure will have devastating consequences on learners and teachers.

We have doggedly been fighting for years for safe and dignified school infrastructure to ensure quality education for all learners across the country. This is because school infrastructure is not just about safety but impacts pupil well-being.

Our advocacy around the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure recognises that safe and proper school infrastructure is a critical part of ensuring quality education and other important factors, such as teacher training and support, curriculum, textbooks, school safety and scholar transport.

READ | 72 Eastern Cape schools unable to open due to poor sanitation, DA says

This demand is not simply a wish list from naive young people – it is the law.

The Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure stipulates the basic level of amenities and services that every school must have to function correctly, signed into existence by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga over seven years ago.

So far, Motshekga and the education MECs have failed to comply with two of the infrastructure delivery deadlines prescribed by the law. This has caused children's rights to education, dignity and safety to be violated every single day. At least two children have died in pit latrines – and still the government response is sluggish.

The improvement in school infrastructure delivery in the Eastern Cape is too slight.

Newly completed buildings for Cookhouse Primary School in Greater Addo, Mawushe Primary School in Cofimvaba and Agnes Primary School in Lady Frere are among the crucial wins that the Norms and Standards have delivered. But the pace of project delivery does not match the magnitude of infrastructure needs in the province – for every Cookhouse Primary School that receives new infrastructure or upgrades, there are schools like Tantseka and Masizame that are grappling with inhumane conditions.

The DBE and Eastern Cape education department could have been much closer to fulfilling their legislative duty, but they have not shown the consistent political will to ensure that our schools are fixed with the urgency needed.

Cuts to infrastructure

The Eastern Cape school infrastructure crisis is aggravated by insufficient funding – which is an indictment of National Treasury and its austerity budgeting and underfunding of basic education. Cuts to infrastructure funding negatively affect the number and speed of delivery of school building projects.

However, national budget cuts alone cannot be blamed for the current state of school infrastructure in the country. There has been gross underspending by provincial education departments over the years, including the Eastern Cape department. The result is slow project delivery, which leaves National Treasury less likely to increase school infrastructure funding.

READ | EC needs millions to rebuild schools damaged by deadly storm

Poor planning and inaccurate data are also severe obstacles to fixing our schools.

For instance, the 2020 National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) shows that there are no schools in the province without toilets or without water supply. However, the latest available Eastern Cape Department of Education infrastructure delivery progress report indicates that there are 74 schools in the province without water. This, and the experiences of learners and teachers, blatantly contradict national data.

Better planning 

Led by the learner members of EE, the teachers, parents and ordinary citizens of the Eastern Cape and of our country must together demand:

- Accurate and accessible data and better project planning from the Eastern Cape Department of Education;

- Accountability from the contractors and implementing agents who are given public money to build schools on behalf of government; and

- Progressive funding from National Treasury and efficient spending by provincial education departments and contractors.

The Eastern Cape education department, DBE and other provincial education departments need to decisively demonstrate that they recognise safe school infrastructure is fundamental to the constitutional rights to basic education, dignity and safety, and to all learners realising their full potential. We will continue to mobilise and empower school communities until this is achieved.

- Elizabeth Biney is an Equal Education researcher, Hopolang Selebalo is head of research at Equal Education and Jane Borman is an Equal Education researcher.

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