Swaziland’s Aids orphans still a contentious issue

In May last year, IPS reported that teachers in Swaziland were at loggerheads with the government over the delicate matter of admitting Aids orphans to schools free of charge. With the new academic year looming, has the situation improved?

Certainly, Minister of Education Constance Simelane is making all the right noises.

“What everybody should know is that children are the country’s future. They should be given first priority,” she said on Thursday, during a press conference.

These soothing statements aside, the issue of ensuring that Aids orphans continue with their education is still a contentious one — no small matter in a country where about 70 000 children are said to have lost their parents to the pandemic, while still more are in need.

“It’s not just orphans who are dropping out of school, but vulnerable children who have both parents — because of lack of finances,” said Pelucy Ntambirweki, acting programme coordinator in Swaziland for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

At the heart of the problem lies the fact that schools fear taking on students who are unable to pay fees — this despite government assurances that it will help finance the education of orphans and vulnerable children.

Last year, Simelane instructed primary and secondary school principals to admit all such children who presented themselves.

Swaziland’s ministry of education set aside just more than $3-million (about R18-million) to subsidise the schooling of these children — an amount that later had to be raised to almost $6,4-million (about R38-million).

Schools nervously complied with Simelane’s orders, their teaching staff apparently doubting the government’s ability to deliver on its promise of financial aid. These fears were realised when Parliament was obliged to pass a supplementary budget to release the $6,4-million — something only accomplished late in the academic year.

By that time, principals who felt unable to continue educating orphans and other vulnerable children without the benefit of government funding had expelled many of these pupils. School heads even threatened to strike over the matter.

With the new academic year scheduled to begin on January 25, teachers remain sceptical about whether education officials will manage the subsidy process more efficiently in 2005.

“When we conducted a survey, it was discovered that some schools have still not been paid for fees for the OVC [orphans and vulnerable children], while some were only paid in part — and even then it was only at the end of the school year,” said Dominic Nxumalo, secretary general of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers.

Nxumalo is also principal of St Mark’s High School, the largest public secondary school in the capital, Mbabane.

Delays a ‘thing of the past’

Authorities insist payment delays are a thing of the past, caused by an underestimation of the number of children in need.

The UN Development Programme has also stepped in with a donation of almost $840 000 (about R5-million) to help finance the schooling of these children. In addition, the UN’s Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria contributed about $1,2-million (R7,2-million) for education purposes. These funds were distributed through the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/Aids (Nercha).

“The ministry of education gives us a list of schools and amounts to be paid, and we provide for as many children as we have a budget for from the global fund,” Nercha director Derek von Wissell said.

“I think the ministry said for last year it was about 16 000 kids. Enrolment last year definitely increased significantly. Enrolment will be even higher this year,” he added.

Education officials say they will also be tolerant of academic failure by orphans, many of whom have been traumatised by the death of their parents.

“Inasmuch as we want these children to pass, if they fail the ministry will continue paying for their fees next year,” said Goodman Kunene, principal secretary at the ministry of education.

For certain children, however, the latest policies on orphans and vulnerable children have come too late. Several have lost out on years of education because fees could not be paid to keep them in school — and their return now is complicated by the considerable age differences between them and their classmates.

“Many children are not age- or class-matched as they have been out of school too long, and have to be catered for in informal schools,” noted Von Wissell.

These schools, called neighbourhood care points, are subsidised by Unicef and run by an adult literacy programme called Sebenta (the SiSwati word for “work”).

“Sebenta has been training care givers to teach children at the neighbourhood care points, which provide basic skills to children — and pre-school education. As much as we try to keep all kids in school, some children cannot stay,” said Ntambirweki.

School fees

Beyond the immediate challenges of ensuring that vulnerable children remain within the education system, some believe that school fees themselves need to be reconsidered.

“Over the years, the setting of fees has been done by local school committees without community input or government guidelines,” said Alan Brody, Unicef’s country representative in Swaziland.

“Fees have tended to be set by small sections of communities, usually better off, who look at higher fees to pay for better facilities. This has become problematic in the age of Aids,” he added.

Ironically, research has shown there is no relationship between the level of fees being charged and the quality of services on offer. Institutions that charge low fees appear to provide the same type of service as schools that set high fees.

“There isn’t much difference,” says Brody. “Unicef made a study with education officials, looking at actual operating costs. The fees charged students were all over the place, from R200 to R800 per year.”

The government, communities and donors need to set up proper guidelines for fees, he adds.

For the long term, many officials and education analysts argue that the only effective way to solve Swaziland’s education problems is for the government to provide universal free education. As with most countries, this Southern African nation is working to realise the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on achieving universal primary schooling by 2015.

Eight MDGs were agreed on by global leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 in a bid to tackle obstacles to development around the world.

About four out of every 10 adults in Swaziland are HIV-positive, giving the landlocked kingdom the unwelcome distinction of having the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate. The country is also desperately poor: two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line of $1 a day. — IPS

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James Hall
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