The basic education department (DBE) has told the South African Human Rights Commission that the department is only obliged to supply every pupil with all the books he or she needs by 2014.
This is contrary to all known government policy on school textbooks and emerged from an interim report on the delivery of learning materials countrywide released by the commission for public comment this week.
"The representative [from the basic education department] indicated that the target they are working towards is that by 2014 every child should have a core textbook in every subject," the interim report says. "This means that the standard to which government is working does not necessarily oblige a 100% rate of receipt."
The report also expresses "concern" about the wildly uneven departmental monitoring of deliveries and the lack of "adequate mechanisms" to hold erring officials accountable.
"It would appear that a child's access to primary learning materials is vastly dependent on where they live," it says.
But the report has drawn stinging criticism from the rights organisation Section27 for being based heavily on government submissions to the relative exclusion of others.
"The absence of other stakeholders from [the hearings] has compromised the extent to which the submissions by the basic education department and the provincial education departments may be tested," the organisation said in a statement.
"There is a history of incorrect information as to the state of textbook delivery being provided [by these departments] to Section27 and to … the public and now, we believe, to the [commission]."
On the department's submission that the government was not obliged to provide all the books, Section27 cited official pronouncements to the contrary, including President Jacob Zuma's 2011 State of the Nation address, in which he said: "The administration must ensure that every child has a textbook on time."
Departmental spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi said Section27's "insinuation that DBE has misled the public and the commission is baseless". Moreover, the department's submission to the commission about 2014 derived from the Council of Education Ministers' 2012 declaration that it "would like to have 100% coverage of every learner, in every subject and every grade" by then.
Human rights lawyer Faranaaz Veriava said the report exposed the department's failure to fulfil its obligations not only in terms of a court judgment on last year's Limpopo debacle but also nationally.
Equal Education chairperson Yoliswa Dwane said inadequate monitoring was worrying. "You can't say 'I've delivered 99% of textbooks' if you don't properly monitor delivery. You won't know whether those books have been delivered to schools or are still in warehouses.
Official assessments are "based on the number of textbooks ordered and not on pupil headcounts or numbers of subjects taken per school".
The report says, "based on the [public] comments received", the commission "will determine whether there is need for further oral submissions".