Following the basic education department's dismissal of "fabrications" that R7.2-billion intended for school infrastructure backlogs was reallocated in last week's medium-term budget policy, the treasury confirmed with the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that this was indeed the case.
"I can confirm that the rescheduling of the school building backlogs programme has been approved by Cabinet as part of the revised framework for the division of revenue between [the] national, provincial and local government," the deputy director general of public finance at the national treasury, Andrew Donaldson, told the Mail & Guardian.
Business Day reported on Monday the treasury said the slow pace of spending meant the money would be reallocated over the medium term.
The treasury's medium term budget policy statement said the funds will be taken away from the schools' infrastructure backlogs grant and be used to increase "the education infrastructure grant to provinces and the community library grant, and to support the construction of new universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape".
Following the report, the Democratic Alliance called the reallocation of this money a "national disgrace".
But on Tuesday the department issued a statement saying it would treat the report as a "fabrication".
"The department … will not comment on the article … regarding the allegation that the national treasury will redirect a R7.2-billion grant … " it said.
"The department of basic education has not yet received the national treasury's final letter of allocation for this period … "
Donaldson told the M&G: "The details of revised allocations will be officially communicated to departments in late November, or early December, once Cabinet has finalised national department budgets."
He said exact amounts still needed to be finalised, but "approximately R4.5-billion will go to the education infrastructure grant to provinces, with the balance split between community libraries and the new universities".
The department is in charge of funds allocated to the schools' infrastructure backlogs grant and once schools are renovated or new ones built, are handed over to the province, he said. The education infrastructure grant refers to money transferred from the department's budget to provinces to address infrastructure needs.
Nongovernmental organisation Equal Education, who launched legal action against the department this year over inadequate school infrastructure across the country, said it had been tracking underspending in education for a long time.
"Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's reallocation of this R7.2-billion shows that he doesn't want money sitting idle. He knows that money that is not being spent is rife for misuse. It shows that without norms and standards for school infrastructure people aren't able to effectively spend money," deputy general secretary Doron Isaacs told the M&G.
Equal Education took Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to court in March in a bid to get the court to force her to promulgate minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure. These will set the basic level of infrastructure that every school must meet in order to function properly and will allow schools to hold the government accountable. The case will be heard in the Bhisho High Court on November 20.
Isaacs said the reallocation was also a sign that Basic Education director general Bobby Soobrayan "isn't properly in control of his department".
A major failing
"If I was director general and billions of rands were available to address a crisis like school infrastructure, but were reallocated to build universities, I would be embarrassed. I would regard it as major failing," he said.
"It’s not a question of saying basic education needs the money more than higher education. Tertiary education is extremely important. The point is that were money being spent well on infrastructure, the finance minister might have looked elsewhere for tertiary education funding.”
The department submitted quarterly reports to Parliament on the progress of spending of the backlogs grant. It was from these that Equal Education noticed the underspending.
Chairperson for the organisation, Yoliswa Dwane, said the reason the department underspent, among others, is "because it took so long to identify contractors and to reach an agreement with the Development Bank of Southern Africa, which was supposed to oversee the programme".
"The department was meant to use the money in the 2011/2012 financial year, which ended at the end of March 2012 but kept pushing the deadline back, until eventually we reached August 2012 and the work hadn’t been done," she said.
More needs to be done to ensure greater accountability by the department, she said.
"There must be ways in which the national treasury and the president can make sure that key priorities of government are met."