“My fear is that the building will collapse at any time.”
“As you can see, it’s dilapidated, and when it happens it will not warn us,” says Mphunyezwa Mnukwa pointing to a crack running through the wall of a mud classroom used by Grade R learners.
Two of Mnukwa’s grandchildren go to school here at Mjanyelwa Junior Secondary School in Bizana, in the rural Eastern Cape.
New Frame recently visited two schools in Bizana, both of which, like many others across the country, fail to comply with the minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. The set of regulations, which were enforced by the Minister of Basic Education in 2013, defines the basic amenities required in schools.
These include running water and adequate sanitation facilities, electricity, internet access, safe classrooms that hold a maximum of 40 learners, security, functional libraries, science laboratories, and sports facilities.
Mjanyelwa Junior Secondary is one of the schools we visited in Bizana. Even though the regulations took effect in 2013, the community-built school still has major infrastructural problems, with just one brick structure and the rest built using mud.
The school has 564 learners and 20 teachers, of which 16 are paid by government and the remaining four by the school governing body.
The school has three leaky water tanks. Due to the condition of these tanks the school installed a tap connected to a municipal pipe that crosses in front of the school, to add to the water supply.
Although the tap is said to be a reliable source of water, when New Frame visited Mjanyelwa Junior Secondary in April, the municipal pipe had burst and the tap was dry. When we arrived, the school’s principal, Bulelani Mazimbeni, told us “[today] there is no water”.
Not all of the school’s classrooms are connected to electricity, and another major concern is the unsafe pit latrines situated at the back of the school. Learners in grades R to 3 are not allowed to use them.
[W]e usually tell the small children to relieve themselves outside. We say this because we fear they might drown.
Grade 2 teacher Veronica Madikizela, who has been at the school for 18 years, says: “The toilets are unsafe, and we usually tell the small children to relieve themselves outside. We say this because we fear they might drown.”
Madikizela’s classroom is an untended mud structure that holds 70 children. The classroom’s zinc roof has holes and its windows are broken. This, according to Madikizela, affects teaching and learning as children lose focus.
She says: “When it rains, water leaks through the holes in the roof and the children’s books get wet. I have to move them around to avoid the leaking from the roof. And when its windy – it penetrates through the broken windows. There is nothing right about the classroom. I would be happy if it can be fixed to be able to teach properly.”
Principal Mazimbeni is uncertain as to whether the school is on any official list for upgrades to comply with regulations.“I think … since schools like Mbenya [Kwambenya Senior Primary School] and others have been fixed, I thought there might be something said about us in these years,” he says reluctantly.
The Department of Basic Education missed its November 2016 deadline to fix existing unsafe and inappropriate schools. In response education advocacy group Equal Education (EE) turned to the Bhisho High Court in March 2018.
Part of this legal endeavour was to fix loopholes in the wording of the regulations that the organisation believes allow the Minister of Basic Education to shirk responsibilities through “escape clauses”.
On 19 July 2018, the Bhisho High Court ruled in favour of Equal Education’s application to compel the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga to fix the loopholes in the norms and standard regulation.
Daniel Linde from the Equal Education Law Centre, Equal Education’s legal representative says, they are happy with the judgement but displeased with the appeal launched by government: “the ruling is very positive… we just think it’s a real shame and a tragic for learners that it has to go on appeal.”
And this decision to appeal, brings to question, why they would go back to court while learners go to unsafe schools, says Linde.
As Amanda Rinquest from Equal Education explains, inappropriate school structures include those made from wood, asbestos, zinc and mud. According to her, the majority of public schools in bad condition are those with a combination of mud and brick structures. But these schools are not prioritised by the department because they only include some structures that are deemed unsafe.
“[The minister] must look at the structures where there is a brick classroom next to a mud classroom you can’t not prioritise that school … because that mud classroom remains unsafe,” says Rinquest.
According to Eastern Cape education department spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani, government’s ASIDI programme to eradicate mud and unsafe school structures is facing many challenges, key among those being budget, and reach and access to schools in “deep rural areas”.
About 1km along a dirt road from Mjanyelwa Junior Secondary is Kwambenya Senior Primary School, which was rebuilt between 2013 and 2014.
Our children sit on the floor and others collect crates to sit on.
Mxolisi Phalane, who has been principal since 2012, says the school’s physical structure after it was rebuilt is beautiful, but it’s an “embarrassment” inside as the school lacks furniture. “Our children sit on the floor and others collect crates to sit on …” he says, frowning.
The issue of school furniture is something both principals have raised. According to Mazimbeni, the lack of furniture in schools across Bizana is something “we all complain of as schools receive chairs without tables”.
He adds: “Shortages of desks affect learners as they have to write on their laps.” Phalane questions the sense in being supplied with chairs alone, saying: “Children have to kneel down and use the chair as a table for writing.”
But Pulumani disputes the furniture issue, saying: “They [referring to the claims by the principals] are over-generalising. As I am saying to you … we have been working flat out to deliver school furniture. The trucks will go non-stop from district to district to provide furniture.”
In the meantime, Patience Nomonde Ndzimakhwe’s Grade 2 class at Kwambenya Senior Primary does not have adequate furniture.
In her classroom of 67 children, benches are broken off from the tables, and plastic tables and chairs intended for a preschool are used for seating. But it doesn’t end there.
According to principal Phalane, a shortage of teachers drastically affects the quality education at his school, which has 500 learners and just 11 teachers, including a Grade R practitioner.
Cameron McConnachie, an attorney at the Legal Resource Centre who represented EE in 2012 in a case concerning the norms and standards for school infrastructure, highlights the importance of teachers. “There is a clear link between improved infrastructure and better results. But having said that, I think we can all agree that the most important issue in education is teachers. Qualified, enthusiastic, inspiring teachers are the ones that are going to ensure that we have quality education,” he says.
Kwambenya Senior Primary has an empty library and its computer centre is cobwebbed and gathering dust. Ndzimakhwe says: “For children to learn to read and develop their reading, it’s problematic that the resource centre does not have books.”
The school did not have electricity from 2014 until April 2018 and its water is supplied by 22 tanks that were provided when the school was rebuilt. According to principal Phalane, the school does not have security and, according to Ndzimakhwe, the school’s 13 pit toilets are unsafe.
Following the deaths of Michael Komape in 2014 and Lumka Mketwa in 2018, who both drowned in pit toilets, communities and parents are calling for urgency in addressing unsafe school structures.
This, according to Thabang Pooe, a researcher at public-interest legal centre Section 27, is where regulations are crucial. Pooe says: “When a school does not have a particular thing, say they do not have toilets, you are able to go to court and say there is a legally binding document that requires you to ensure that my school has toilets by this date.”
But regulatory compliance is made even more difficult and complicated when provincial education departments underspend on their budget allocations. In March 2016, Dispatch Live reported that the Eastern Cape education department underspent a whopping R530 million that was earmarked for school infrastructure in the province.
This, according to Dispatch Live, led to National Treasury reallocating the funds to other provinces. As a result of underspending, Eastern Cape’s budget allocation for education was cut by R325 million for the current financial year.
For McConnachie and Rinquest, the issue of underspending while knowing that there are infrastructural backlogs comes down to poor administration, a lack of capacity, and a lack of political will to drive change.
“We need the department to start capacitating itself and budgeting properly, and we need the Treasury to allocate more funds to education. We also need the political will to fix this crisis. As there was political will to bail out SAA, there must be political will to fix the school infrastructure crisis in South Africa,” says Rinquest.