The most disturbing part of the run-down, overcrowded classrooms in Eastern Cape schools was not the sight of pupils sitting on concrete blocks or the long-drop toilets. It was discovering that the pupils did not know how wronged they were.
“What does it feel like to have to press your exercise books on your laps so you can write?” I asked a group of pupils at Tolweni Senior Secondary School in rural Mount Frere last week.
“Because, you know, you don’t have desks … and what about the bad toilets? And there not being enough teachers?”
The group was so quiet, I was not sure they could understand English.
A pupil squinted against the sun, shrugged and said: “But … what else is there?”
They walked away over the cracked ground towards their next class, dodging a puddle of water from a leaking water tank.
Their response was one I had heard before from numerous pupils at the forgotten schools of the Eastern Cape, the schools that did not make it on to any government or corporate “list” to be improved.
For four days, we drove over rutted roads past cattle, road kill, goats and mielie fields in the rural areas around Mthatha looking for these schools. The postcard pastoral scenes of aqua blue and rose pink huts dotted along the rolling green hills of the Mount Frere, Libode and Zithulele areas disguised the depressing conditions at the schools that thousands of pupils attend.
The Legal Resources Centre (LRC), accompanied by the Mail & Guardian, found the schools, sat down with their principals, spoke to teachers and pupils, walked through classrooms and looked at the toilets to try to imagine what it would be like to have to study there.
“I am overwhelmed at the enormous challenges so many schools still face and many are not even on the department’s radar,” said Cameron McConnachie, an attorney for the centre, a non-governmental organisation fighting for the protection of human rights in South Africa.
The accelerated schools infrastructure development initiative (Asidi) is supposed to replace mud schools with proper facilities. It was created in response to court action brought by the LRC in 2009 against the Eastern Cape education department on behalf of seven mud schools and the Centre for Child Law.
The case was settled out of court. But of the 49 schools that Asidi put on its list to be replaced by March 2012, many might be near completion, but only 10 are finished and only two have been handed over to communities.
There are still more than 400 mud schools in the province. Some have received temporary container classrooms, but many do not appear to be on any government list or are not even classified as mud schools, such as Samson Senior Primary.
Into the gloom
Last Monday, we stood on a hill in Libode, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Mthatha, with principal Agnus Mbali, who pointed to the old school on the opposite hill. It was so dilapidated and far away from the centre of the village that she and the teachers had abandoned the buildings and moved to mud huts in the village.
“People took their clothes and things out [of the huts] so we can be in here,” said Mbali. “This is no school. We want prefabs. It is so hot. And when it rains …” She put up her hands and shrugged her shoulders.
Inside one of the huts, it takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the gloom. Slowly, we see the faces of pupils sitting three or four to a desk meant for two. A teacher who struggles to speak English tells us that the school has enough textbooks, yet these are in messy piles on a bed against the side of the hut.
There is no electricity. There is no running water. If a pupil is thirsty, he has to use the village’s communal tap.
The court battles over shocking school conditions have raged for years in the province, whose service delivery is so notorious that it is producing, as one politician called it, education and health “refugees”.
The LRC last year sued the province over the department’s failure to fill 3 000 empty teacher posts and again on behalf of the Centre for Child Law and schools over a shortage of more than 500 000 desks and chairs.
Some of the schools we visited also formed part of the highly publicised court case brought by non-governmental organisation Equal Education last year over norms and standards for school infrastructure.
After years of campaigning, Equal Education, represented by the LRC, took to court evidence of shocking school infrastructure and why it breached pupils’ right to education. It wanted Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to publish the norms, a document it says will provide rules to establish, for instance, how big a classroom should be and the ratio of pupils to toilets. In an out-of-court settlement, Motshekga agreed to do so. A final version is expected to be made public on March 15.
Until now, Equal Education says, schools have been built across the country in an ad hoc way, with help from the private sector and often only when the department is faced with another embarrassing trip to court, political threats or a media exposé.
This could not be truer for the Eastern Cape, a province in which the education department has consistently blamed a lack of funds and interference by teacher unions, among other excuses, for its inability to help its barely functioning schools.
For the most part, the attitude of those with the power to help these mostly rural, struggling schools seems to be: if you cannot see them, maybe they will go away.
The roof at Bomvini Primary School, a 30-minute drive from Samson Senior Primary, also leaks. One of the classrooms is the borrowed, half-built hut of a community member. To get to the back of the classroom, some of the 139 pupils jump from desk to desk. Sometimes classes are conducted outside, under the sky, because of a lack of classroom space.
We drove further down the winding dirt road to the site of Bomvini’s alleged planned R18-million replacement. We climbed the mounds of earth where the school will stand one day, looked at the spectacular views and the sparsely populated hills and asked ourselves: Why here?
At Putuma Junior Secondary School, the grade two class has 140 pupils. Beyond the mass of small bodies, you can see a stack of plastic tables in a corner, but there is not enough space to put them out. The heat is oppressive. The windows cannot be opened.
There are 165 pupils in the grade one class.
Both classes have one teacher each.
Kangelani Manana is a grade 10 pupil here. The long-drop toilets do not have toilet paper and they smell so bad, he says he and the other boys just use “the bush”. He motions towards the long grass beyond the school’s trampled playground.
On the wall at Tolweni Senior Secondary School, a sign is painted: “Welcome to Tolweni SSS. Education is the key to success.”
But what kind of an education are the pupils at this school getting if they do not all have a teacher? Or even desks and chairs?
There are more than 1 300 pupils, but only 24 teachers. Principal Sipho Hlakanyane has asked the parents in this isolated village in Mount Frere to contribute what they can to the R3 000 a month salaries of a few teachers he has convinced, without authorisation from the department, to work at the school while another plan is made.
As the year progresses, many schools in the province apply to the education department to have vacant teacher posts filled with temporary teachers. At the end of each year, the department, in an attempt to cut costs, terminates the contracts of many of those teachers.
But, despite the action of Hlakanyane, some pupils still do not have a teacher in front of them.
“The department expects us to do well. It expects us to get good marks, but how do we do that with this going on?” he said.
Pupils squash together next to the steel frames of what were once desks. Or they use pieces of wood taken from broken desks or something flat, like a rusted metal table found outside the school, to make some sort of a surface to put their books on. “I’ve been asking the department for more desks and chairs since the start of 2012,” Hlakanyane said.
A stinking mess
We stood in the long grass at the edge of the school. It was 2pm and 38 degrees. The sweat dripped down Hlakanyane’s face, yet he still wore a purple shirt, tie and suit pants. I left him to return to his office and followed a group of girls going to the toilets, housed in corrugated sheeting.
They were “bitter”, they told me, that their school did not have enough desks and chairs. It was uncomfortable. “We would say thank you if we got more,” they said.
One of them, Ayanda Mndwetywa, said: “It’s bad, but we are used to it. I mean, what option do we have?”
I held my breath as we neared the toilets. The sign “female” is painted in red across the zinc. Above the long drops are black plastic pedestals, less than a metre high. Some of the toilets were filled with waste and were unusable. The smell was sickening. With the door closed it was pitch-dark inside. Insects whirred and whined close by.
Squinting in the sunlight a minute later, I asked Mndwetywa what her dream school would be like.
Would it have enough desks and chairs? Flushing toilets?
“It would just give me a good education. Good teachers,” she said.
The only difference between the toilets at Tolweni and the toilets at Gwebityala High School in the Kotyana area is that the doors at the latter do not close.
There is blood on one of the pedestals. And there is no toilet paper to clean it up.
The toilets do not offer the privacy, running water and other facilities needed to manage menstruation hygienically, so many female pupils just do not come to school when they have their periods.
On the hill above the toilets are the classrooms, where we find the most severe case of overcrowding we have yet seen.
There are 162 pupils in the grade 10 class. There is so little space that the teacher can barely fit in the gap between pupils’ knees in the front row and the chalkboard.
Amid the travesty of school infrastructure our group has witnessed over the past four days, there are success stories.
Mbananga Junior Secondary School now has desks and chairs.
After it was sued by the LRC, the provincial department agreed to provide the three school applicants, including Mbananga, with the furniture they so desperately needed. It also said it would address the needs of the rest of the province’s schools this year.
The school’s principal, Thenjiwe Bokoto, said that before the department delivered the desks and chairs to the school in January, the grade ones and twos sat on the floor.
“They had to take their shoes off before they came into the class so their books did not get dirty,” she said. This caused fights between pupils when the wrong shoes were picked from the pile at the end of the lesson. Parents were also angered when their children came home without their shoes because another pupil had taken them by mistake.
The last time the department gave the school any furniture was in 1988, she said. “We had to ask pupils to bring mielie sacks to sit on or use their school bags.”
Teachers and pupils said they were “so pleased, so happy” with the shining desks lined up in rows in the classrooms.
Glimmers of hope
The gleamingly clean Maganisi Junior Secondary School in Mthatha is another success story, but not because the department had a hand in it. Eskom donated the school to the community, said principal Tobeka Vapi.
The facebrick buildings stand strong on the hillside and every classroom has a teacher. There are pictures on the wall. Vapi isn’t happy, however. “We have no furniture,” she said, touching a desk.
We walk into a classroom and are greeted with “Good mo-o-o-orning our mo-o-others and fathers”.
The school has furniture, but if you look a little closer, you notice that some of the pupils are squashed on to benches and the desktops they write on are sometimes uneven or not attached to their steel frames.
Turning to the court to force the department to do its job is not a sustainable solution to the crisis in education in the province and the LRC is the first to admit it.
It is those who have access to state funds and the authority to walk into every single school that need to step up to the plate.
In the meantime, “there are glimmers of hope that things are improving as a result of litigation”, the LRC’s McConnachie said, mentioning that new, permanent classrooms had been built at some schools, others had temporary classrooms and furniture had been delivered to some.
“I was horrified when I saw kids sitting on each other’s laps in overcrowded classrooms with no furniture,” he said.
“Litigation is not going to solve the education crisis in the province, but for as long as it assists children to access their right to basic education, we will pursue it.”
Neither the provincial nor the basic education department responded to questions from the M&G.
Procrastination and lies
In 2004, then-president Thabo Mbeki said: "By the end of this year, we shall ensure that there is no learner learning under a tree, [or in a] mud school …"
In 2006, Mkhangeli Matomela, then MEC for education in the Eastern Cape, said: "I'm confident we will eradicate mud schools in the next two financial years."
In 2007, then education minister Naledi Pandor said: "Fifty percent of the mud schools will be rebuilt between 2007 and 2009."
In 2008, Mahlubandile Qwase, then MEC for education in the Eastern Cape, said: "It is my plan that the eradication of mud schools must be fast-tracked in the 2010/11 financial year."
In 2011, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said: "By 2014, we will have eradicated all mud schools in the province", and in 2013 she said: "By 2015, in terms of mud schools, we should be done." — Compiled by Equal Education