Pupils at a rural school in the Eastern Cape say they are tired of being let down by government.
Pupils at a rural school in the Eastern Cape which is short of eight teachers, hundreds of textbooks and does not have running water, picketed outside their education department’s district office on Wednesday despite being denied permission to do so by local authorities.
“We picketed because we are tired of years of these problems at our school,” grade 12 Moshesh Senior Secondary pupil Tshepang Moraba told the Mail & Guardian.
He said about 50 pupils picketed because the provincial education department had failed to comply fully with a settlement agreement, later made an order of court, forcing the department to fix the school’s problems. “But government doesn’t care about us,” he said.
The picket was organised by pupils and nongovernmental organisation Equal Education (EE). The school is in the poor village of Queen’s Mercy, about an hour’s drive on a potholed dirt road outside Matatiele.
EE’s relationship with Moshesh began in 2012, when one of its pupils sent the organisation a letter describing his school’s absent principal, shortage of teachers, and apartheid-era textbooks.
EE tried to get the department to respond to these complaints, but after five unsuccessful months it went to court, represented by the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC).
Last year, it reached an out-of-court settlement in which the department agreed to provide continuing support for the acting principal and the school governing body, fill vacant teacher posts, and provide all the textbooks pupils need, among other commitments. But two years later pupils and teachers endure most of the same problems.
When the M&G accompanied EE and the EELC on a visit to the school in March this year it saw rows of filthy pit toilets, a cramped hostel and derelict classrooms filled with broken furniture. It spoke to teachers and pupils who described themselves as “hopeless” in the face of heavy workloads and not enough staff.
During its visit the M&G heard Lumkile Zani, head of EE’s community department, tell a group of pupils: “I know it’s frustrating, but you need to organise yourselves … You have the power to stand up against this … We are not saying you must fight against the district. But it is your right to march to the office.”
But when EE and the EELC returned to the area last week and tried to get permission to picket, provincial authorities blocked their attempts. “EE followed due procedure and applied for permission to protest … On Tuesday [it] sat in a meeting with 17 people with the [police] represented, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), law enforcement [officials], the municipal manager, the Maluti education district deputy director and the circuit manager to discuss the application to gather in terms of the Gatherings Act,” EE said in a press release on Wednesday.
It was unclear why permission was denied but EE said the only way the protest could be denied permission was if there was reason to believe that [it] would turn violent. “As track record shows, EE does not have a history of violent protests even when there are thousands of learners gathered.The EE and the pupils decided to picket anyway but in groups of 15 as no official permission is needed for this,” said the EE.
Moraba said pupils “carried posters, sang, danced … the circuit manager was there but he didn’t come to talk to us because he is scared”. He said they were denied permission to picket because “the department doesn’t want to know anything about the school”.
Zani told the M&G that local provincial authorities “have their own political reason” for denying EE and pupils permission to picket. “In my experience this is not how it works. I’ve been in many meetings [before] in Cape Town to organise pickets. These are administrative meetings where you talk logistics so why was Sadtu in the meeting?” he said.
“There were three of us and there were 18 of them. They argued that we shouldn’t be granted permission to picket, but rather sit down and engage with the district. We said it was our right to picket and we had tried to engage with the department before but there had not been positive results. We have used all avenues to try to fix this. I think the provincial department was nervous about how this looks being so close to elections.”
According to EE, the school had grown in size from 349 learners in 2013 to 504 learners in 2014. “This means that more teachers are needed, [but] there are eight vacant substantive educator posts. Out of the 18 subjects taught at Moshesh, only five subjects have been fully reported on in the area of results and plans for improvement … the department has still not provided … support for the acting principal, the school does not have enough textbooks and even though the department has undertaken to renovate the hostel, no real action has been taken,” it said.
Departmental spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani told the M&G there were not enough teachers at the school because “no suitable candidates are available to fill [the posts]”. He also said: “The pressure that is exerted by EE has deterred potential candidates that may take up posts in the school, consequently the department is struggling to find suitably qualified educators for this school which has a highly diversified curriculum.”
There were not enough textbooks at the school, he said, because there was an “increase in enrollment [by pupils] … which has not been catered for”.
He acknowledged that the department has not done enough to help the school but then said it “cannot be expected to address all the issues that have been raised by EE within a short space of time, as some of them require a huge budget to address like the provision of [a] hostel and other infrastructural challenges facing the school”.
The Matatiele Local Municipality which arranged the meeting at which permission for the picket was denied, did not respond to the M&G‘s questions at the time of publishing.