An urgent legal application to get vacant teacher posts in the Eastern Cape filled started in the Grahamstown High Court on Thursday, but arguments focused first on the government's response that there was no urgency to the case.
The Legal Resources Centre is asking the court to order Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and acting Eastern Cape education department head Mthunywa Ngonzo to implement fully its 2012 "post-provisioning plan" — that is, to fill the more than 3 000 teacher posts that remain vacant. The centre is acting on behalf of the Centre for Child Law and five other applicants.
"I am absolutely astonished that the minister thinks that not having teachers in front of classrooms isn't urgent," said Sarah Sephton, regional director of the Legal Resources Centre, shortly before the court sat on Thursday. "She must be the only person in the country to think this."
The matter of the province's vacant posts remains unresolved after at least 18 months of legal and other disputes.
Dipping into parents' pockets
Some schools have had to draw on parents' pockets to pay for teachers whose salaries the province should have paid, the M&G has learnt.
"From January until the start of April 10, schools in the northern areas of Port Elizabeth paid more than R2-million on teacher salaries so that learners could have teachers in the classrooms," said Andrew Saulls, chairperson for the Bethelsdorp school governing body forum, an applicant in the case. It represents 55 primary schools and 17 high schools that accommodate about 70 000 pupils.
The government argued that "the issue of urgency would be challenged" because the applicants "had been aware of the declared 2012 post-provisioning from October 2011 and any shortcomings therein since the start of the academic year".
The matter was already receiving attention through past and pending litigation relating to post-provisioning, and trade unions had signed an agreement with the department on June 13 relating to the appointment of temporary teachers, the government said.
This is not the first time the government has sought recently to delay or avoid legal action on basic education provision. The non-governmental organisation Equal Education's suit on school infrastructure, which was first heard in the Bisho High Court in March, drew two requests from Motshekga, the first respondent, for extensions on filing her answering affidavits. The extensions were granted but her third request for one was then denied. A court date for this case is still to be set.
Right to education grossly infringed
Sephton said Eastern Cape pupils' basic right to education had been "grossly infringed" because the provincial department had failed to appoint teachers to vacant posts, even after it had been placed under the minister's control following her section 100 intervention in March last year.
The ongoing teacher vacancies created a "situation of crisis and financial peril … in which many schools face the very real prospect of sending children home because there are no teachers to teach them", the applicants in the Grahamstown High Court action said.
Saulls said the northern areas of Port Elizabeth had "huge amounts of unemployment and many children came to school with empty stomachs".
"Parents will say: 'I can give you R500 this month to help with teachers, but next month I don't know.' "
An Eastern Cape pupil at a school near Matatiele said it asked parents earlier this year to donate R200 each so that vacant teacher posts could be filled (see "Poorly performing schools slip through the cracks").
The national and Eastern Cape education departments had not replied to M&G questions by the time the newspaper went to print.
By that time, however, the Grahamstown court had ruled that, although it was an urgent matter, it was important that all parties be heard fully and it therefore granted Motshekga's request for a postponement until July 26.