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School infrastructure: Motshekga, don’t shoot for the stars

As we wait for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to publish norms and standards for school infrastructure, many of us are wondering what the document is going to look like. 

If it is anything like our usual policy documents it will be wonderfully ambitious, hopelessly impractical and deliberately imprecise. Unfortunately it looks like there will be yet another delay since the minister has recently asked for a six-month extension in order to, she says, consult all stakeholders including the National Economic Development and Labour Council.

Looking at the list of the rubber-stamping authorities required to promulgate this document, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a new curriculum or something equally as complex, but it isn't. It's a document that explains what the minimum infrastructure requirements are for a school. We're talking about toilets, water, buildings, and electricity. There are a few very important footnotes, like the fact that it is legally binding, should have time frames and specificity and that provinces will have to comply with it, but in essence it's just a document specifying the minimum standards for a school building as well as its water, sanitation and energy requirements.

Some organisations, most prominently Equal Education, have argued that libraries and laboratories should be included in this document since they are a vital part of the minimum needs of a school. While this is obviously true, it is difficult to argue that the basic dignity of a child depends as much on having a laboratory as it does on having a toilet or running water.

Libraries and laboratories are needed for effective implementation of the curriculum, yes, but surely basic infrastructure is a more urgent and primary need, and one which should be prioritised? This distinction does not take away from the tremendously important work Equal Education has done to highlight the dire state of too many South African schools, and it does not diminish the ultimate need for libraries and laboratories – the state must provide these – but it should be expected to provide the basics first.

Pupils cannot be expected to learn in a classroom where they can barely see their books for a lack of lights and are packed in so tightly that their teacher cannot reach the back of the classroom to monitor their work. Pupils should not have to wait in queues for toilets that are mere holes in the ground. They should not have to sit under umbrellas at their desks because the rain is pouring through holes in the roofs. It goes without saying that their learning capabilities are severely undermined in these conditions.

In South Africa there is a policy narrative that says something like: "If you shoot for the first world standard stars, you will hit the moon." Unfortunately you don't hit the stars, or the moon, or anything at all. When we ascribe to aspirational policy making, we set hopelessly unrealistic targets and don't blame ourselves when we don't meet them. After all, they were unrealistic to begin with.

How many unmet promises have been made by the government to provide housing, water and sanitation since 1994? Worse yet, the repeated promises of millions of jobs that will be created by the latest economic growth strategy. Whether through the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan which promised 270 000 jobs per year between 1996 and 2000, or more recently the New Growth Path which promised five million jobs by 2020. It's little wonder that Tito Mboweni, ex-governor of the Reserve Bank and former Labour Minister this year cautioned voters: "Be wary of any politician who comes to you now promising jobs. There are no jobs. Any politician who promises jobs now is lying".

The most blatant example of this curse is the numerous unmet promises to eradicate mud-hut schools in South Africa. From promises made by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2004, former MEC for Education in the Eastern Cape Mkhangeli Matomela in 2006, former Education Minister Naledi Pandor in 2007 and now Motshekga in 2011, we need to ask ourselves how these deadlines come and go without fanfare or consequence?

The reason is that these mud hut structures affect only the poorest and most marginalised of South African children – those with the least political voice or legal recourse. How long must the poor wait before they can expect running water and functional toilets in their schools? If not for Equal Education kicking up a public relations storm and stoking the righteous indignation of the public, one wonders whether the mud schools issue would be getting the attention it now rightfully deserves.

If I could tell Motshekga one thing as she deliberates on the minimum norms and standards document it would be this: "Don't aim for the stars and don't promise libraries and laboratories in the same sentence as running water and brick structures, because we know it won't happen".

I think she should propose a two-phase approach where phase one outlines exactly when and how the government will provide every school with drinking water, functional toilets, electricity and safe, permanent structures. Give specific numbers for the maximum number of children per classroom and per toilet. Give hard deadlines and simple, succinct specifications of what types of electricity are acceptable such as solar or grid electricity, and exactly what constitutes a toilet or an appropriate building.

It is now widely understood that the binding constraint to eradicating mud schools and providing basic infrastructure is not limited resources because we know finances have been made available by the treasury but rather the capacity to implement these plans and the system of checks and balances to ensure it gets done. Given that there is a wealth of expertise and competence in the private sector to do this, why not utilise this resource as government did to build the road, rail and airport infrastructure for the 2010 World Cup, not to mention the stadiums themselves?

Phase Two would involve providing some form of libraries such as community libraries, mobile libraries or book corners and basic scientific equipment to all schools. Most importantly, the rollout and implementation of phase one should in no way be hampered or delayed by concerns around phase two implementation.

Responding to a basic infrastructure and child dignity crisis on the one hand, and providing laboratories and libraries on the other, should not be conflated or given equal priority and status. Libraries and laboratories should eventually be available to all, yes, but so should knowledgeable teachers and reliable information on performance, and a host of other things that we also don't have but desperately need, probably more so than laboratories.

The recent National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu) report, for example, finds that one of the major binding constraints to progress in education is that many South African teachers have poor subject knowledge, meaning that in many instances it's not that teachers won't teach, but rather that they can't teach. Unsurprisingly one of the findings is that: "capacitating teachers…must be the most important factor in any reform strategy for schools". It's difficult to argue that laboratories and scientific equipment should be a national priority when we are faced with the far more serious problem of incapable teachers.

But before teacher training or libraries or laboratories or computers, schools urgently need buildings, water, electricity and sanitation.

This is a matter of dignity and self-respect and an indication to the poorest children in South Africa that they are valuable and important, and so too is their education. Motshekga, we are losing patience on this issue. Get the best people on the job and get it done quickly. No excuses. No delays. No compromises. Just get it done. 

Nic Spaull is a researcher in Stellenbosch University's economics department. He can be followed on Twitter @NicSpaull and his research can be found at

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