The fall of Eastern Cape public schools

The provincial department has failed to spend its infrastructure budget for years and some schools are literally falling down. This is leading to a loss of learners, school closures, vandalism and robbery.

Eastern Cape schools have carried the burden of underdevelopment, poor infrastructure and vandalism over the years, which is often ignored by the provincial Department of Education’s district offices.

In Makhanda and Gqeberha, deteriorating infrastructure has led to a decrease in learner enrolment, often leading to schools being closed down.

The Public Service Accountability Monitor at the university currently known as Rhodes University released a research paper in 2017 on school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape that highlighted deep irregularities within the provincial infrastructure development budgets. The Eastern Cape Department of Education had severely underspent their allocated budget for school infrastructure over the years, according to the research.

“Underspending was recorded in the infrastructure development programme by over R49 million. The 2016-2017 financial year was noted to having had underexpenditure similar to the 2015-2016 financial year due to delays with project delivery and subsequent underachieving of planned targets,” says the paper. 

Not addressing infrastructure development issues puts the future of public education at risk. A school in Gqeberha that has been battling with poor infrastructure and sanitation is now overwhelmed by the additional burden of crime. In combination, these problems threaten the school’s future.

28 August 2020: The grade R classrooms at Inkqubela are so damaged that they could not be used at the start of the 2021 school year.

Half its learners gone

Inkqubela Primary School has struggled with infrastructure problems for more than half a decade. It has lost half of its 400 learners for the 2021 academic year. With a 50-year history and three generations of learners attending the school from certain households, its beautiful history may soon be overwritten by the Eastern Cape Department of Education’s inability to provide the basics.

“I was a student at this school and so was my daughter, and now my grandchild will attend grade R at this school. It is sad that schools with a long history of existence are being neglected by the department,” said Charmaine Yani, the 54-year-old deputy chairperson of the school governing body (SGB).

The SGB, parents and teachers have spent five gruelling years trying to get the provincial department and its district office to repair the crumbling infrastructure at the school.

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Conceding they are concerned about local government and its inability to respond to many petitions and official demands, parents and the SGB say they feel abandoned by the department. Teachers spoke about their worries, but asked to remain anonymous.

“Last year, just before the end of the year, we had a visit by the Coega project manager who assured us that the school fence will be fixed and that they are only waiting for money by the DOE [Department of Education],” said one concerned teacher. Coega won the tender to build the fence, among other school projects.

“At that time, they had already even measured the fence and dug holes around the yard preparing for the installation. To our surprise, this year, when we opened in January, the principal called a meeting and updated us on new developments. He said that the fence will no longer be installed as the DOE had used the funds towards Covid vaccinations. 

“All of a sudden, they are now changing their tune and have left us in a dilemma. Now we don’t know where to go because the school infrastructure is gone. There is nothing left. Our classrooms have been vandalised,” said the teacher.

Yani said: “The department said last year that they already paid Coega an amount of R63 million to fix the infrastructure of 12 schools and Inkqubela was one of those schools. But Coega disputes receiving money from the department. We don’t know how the school will now remain open in this poor state.”

15 February 2021: Parents and members of the school governing body clean an unused classroom with intact windows for the grade R learners at Inkqubela.

Reduced to rubble

Thamsanqa High School, a run-down school near Inkqubela, has been reduced to rubble. The school shut down owing to infrastructure challenges. It is a typical example of how neglected public schools are in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro region.

“Thamsanqa closed down three years ago due to the same problems Inkqubela is facing. For some time, the building was guarded by the Department of Public Works workers. But after a while they left and then criminal elements started vandalising the building, and now there’s no sign that it ever was a school,” said Yani.

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The SGB and parents have held a number of protests outside the school, at which initial agreements with various demands have been issued and signed by education department officials. Even though the department signed and acknowledged the documents, the implementation of those demands has not seen the light for years. 

While contracts can be legally binding documents, such agreements, although also requiring a signature, can be useless without legal enforcement, as the Inkqubela SGB and parents found out. Without the document’s legal capabilities, the department’s acceptance of their previous agreements would have been deemed a useless exercise. 

Many community members and organisations have had a tough time getting government officials to commit to their demands. Only a mutually agreed clause deems an initial agreement legally binding, and this may change the outlook of many community members frustrated with the delivery of basic services.

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More than 200 parents have requested a transfer from Inkqubela to another school. The teachers say that almost every parent they have met this year has come for transfers and only a few were coming to register their child for the new year.

“I am taking my granddaughter out of this school. It’s been years now and nothing’s changed. I have now come from the school and requested a transfer, even though this means I will have to take my grandchild to a school far from our residence. It is the risk I am willing to take. This school has no future,” said the 66-year-old grandmother of one learner.

‘Things are just bad here’

Criminals targeting the school have teachers worried about their safety and that of the learners. As infrastructure continues to be vandalised and stolen, teachers are concerned that foundation-phase learners might be threatened by crime.

Even though teachers are uncertain about the academic year, their biggest concern is the department’s conduct, even after numerous engagements.

“We are really worried about this school. Things are just bad here. One of the teachers that were victims of the robbery has been booked off by her psychologist. She couldn’t cope after the robbery, she had post-traumatic stress,” said one of the teachers.

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The provincial department held a meeting with its Nelson Mandela Bay Metro district office and Inkqubela’s SGB on Thursday 18 February. The meeting, which went on for well over four hours in one of the school’s classrooms, resolved that the district office appoint a procurement officer to begin purchasing building materials immediately for the school fence.

“The meeting was really about the provincial office coming to inspect the shortcomings of the district office. They were really here to ask them if they were doing their jobs or not. The meeting didn’t really have any real answers for us except that we should expect a procurement officer to come and measure the fence and assess damages to the school,” said Yani.

“It seems there had been great irregularities at the district department of education because the provincial DOE enquired to them why funds dispersed in August 2020 were said to have been utilised for Covid-related programmes when Covid-19 was already an issue in March 2020. It was funny how the district could not provide clear answers.”

Nelson Mandela Bay Metro district manager Ernest Gorgonzola did not respond to queries. 

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