Litigation distracts the basic education department, it argues -- but NGOs say dire school conditions force them to approach the courts.
How effective court action is in improving classroom conditions has come into focus following Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s extending of an olive branch to civil society organisations litigating against her department.
In a press briefing in Pretoria last week, Motshekga asked organisations to resolve disputes with her department instead of resorting to the courts. The department is facing a spate of litigation from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on dire teaching and learning conditions that include problematic teacher supply, textbooks and infrastructure.
Motshekga argued that these actions did not necessarily help public education and prevented the department from doing its core duties. “Let’s rather sit down and work together,” Motshekga said.
On teacher supply problems in the Eastern Cape, she predicted that the litigation brought by the Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Child Law over the provisioning of teaching posts in the province would be settled out of court, because the Eastern Cape education department had signed an agreement on post-provisioning norms with unions the day before her briefing.
The agreement paved the way for transferring excess teachers and appointing temporary teachers, the province’s acting education department head, Mthunywa Ngozo, said at the media briefing.
Concerning this litigation, Motshekga received some support from Ezra Ramasehla, president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian after the briefing, he said he did not think that post-provisioning problems in the Eastern Cape could best be settled in the courts.
“An agreement in the bargaining chamber would help, because that’s where the department and unions take ownership,” Ramasehla said, adding that the agreement would not make teacher supply problems disappear immediately. The major problem in the Eastern Cape is that the post-provisioning agreement has not been signed because negotiations in chamber have dragged on for a long time. “We’d not have this problem if the agreement had been signed many years ago,” said Ramasehla. “[The provincial department and unions] let the ball drop about six or seven years ago.”
The failure to reach an agreement over post provisioning in the province has led to many schools operating with too few teachers, whereas others have too many.
But desperate situations in schools are forcing NGOs to litigate. Problems related to the department’s failure to supply teachers had thrown many Eastern Cape schools into crisis, said Sarah Sephton, the Legal Resources Centre’s Grahamstown regional director. “Look at it from the perspective of schools. Some schools have not had teachers since the beginning of the year; we have schools with no money.”
Ann Skelton, director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, recently commented in a statement: “Individual schools have taken steps to fill substantive vacant educator posts at their own expense, or relying on emergency donations from parents. Some of the individual schools are unable to pay additional educators and many learners are wholly without a teacher and have not received tuition this year.” Sephton added that it was not as if NGOs had an agenda against the minister: they only resorted to the courts after their letters of demand addressed to her remained unanswered.
The Legal Resources Centre has not received a settlement offer from Motshekga’s department, which has already notified the Grahamstown High Court that it will oppose the application.
On the huge spate of litigation now centred on basic education, Motshekga’s deputy, Enver Surty, pulled no punches at the briefing, calling them sensationalist and not intended to improve the roll-out of public education in the country. “Litigations of this nature are about sensationalising … delicate matters,” he said, and the department ended up having to deal with “500 pages [detailing] facts that are not in dispute”.
For Motshekga, the wave of litigation is not an indication of a deepening crisis in public education. “I can assure you there’s no crisis. In all these matters we could have settled out of court,” she said. She cited litigation by the NGO Section 27, which had been aimed at ensuring that textbooks for Limpopo’s grade 10 and foundation phase pupils would be delivered by the end of May. This action had been unnecessary and could have been settled out of court, Motshekga claimed. She said her department had actually won this court action because Judge Jody Kollapen ruled that textbooks had to be delivered to all schools in Limpopo by no later than June 15 – a deadline she claimed her department had already set.
The department and the litigants only differed on the deadline for delivering textbooks, Motshekga said. “It is unfortunate that this matter went to court as the department had engaged with the applicant in order to settle the matter out of court. There was no need for litigation. By the time they took us to court we had already ordered textbooks for Limpopo.”
She gave the assurance that every school in Limpopo would have textbooks by the end of last week and said 40% of them had been delivered when she checked with the provincial department two weeks before.