Political mudslinging between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance reignited when the Western Cape education department's decision to close 17 public schools returned to court this week. But an analyst says school closures are not necessarily a bad thing.
More than 2 400 schools closed nationally between 2000 and 2011, said Jonathan Snyman, an education researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations.
"This is a normal trend and follows demographic shifts in provinces; and the consolidation of resources can be very worthwhile," Snyman told the Mail & Guardian. "When you have one school that caters for 100 pupils in a grade and another school with only 15 pupils in a grade, it makes sense to transfer those pupils."
The number of public schools in the country decreased by 9% between 2000 and 2011, from 26 789 to 24 365, Snyman said.
The biggest percentage decrease — 46% — was in the Free State. The North West followed with 29.6%. In the Western Cape, only 3.5% of schools closed.
This week's court action follows an application last year by the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) and the governing bodies of 17 schools, challenging provincial education minister Donald Grant's decision to close the schools. He cited dwindling pupil numbers and underperformance, among other reasons, for deciding to close the schools.
Sadtu and the schools said he had not properly consulted the affected communities.
In December the Western Cape High Court granted the schools an interdict halting the closures pending a review process, which began this week. Arguments closed on Tuesday and judgment was reserved.
But Snyman said school closures had become a "politicised issue".
"We know that there were more schools closed in provinces that are controlled by the ANC than there were in the Western Cape. Why is Sadtu not challenging school closures in other provinces? Instead it has used belligerent rhetoric, accusing the DA of being anti-poor and against the education of black pupils, which is not the case," he said.
Sadtu spokesperson Nomusa Cembi said the union's court action "is not politically motivated. Government can close a school in an area where there is a dwindling population, but a new school must be built to avoid overcrowding."
Asked about the union's apparent silence on closures across the country, she said: "If we heard that there were other provinces where communities had not been properly consulted on school closures and this was disadvantaging them, then we would make a noise. But I would need to speak to provincial secretaries to see if Sadtu has challenged this before in other provinces."
This week the ANC leader in the province, Marius Fransman, reportedly sang and danced with a group of protesters outside the court. A photo in the Cape Times on Tuesday showed one of the posters, which said "Stop DA racism".
The DA hit back, with the party's Western Cape leader, Ivan Meyer, saying Fransman's demonstration was "one of the biggest acts of hypocrisy South Africans are likely to see".
He said the Western Cape education department was fighting a
battle "against the ANC-driven Save Our Schools campaign to enrol pupils into better educational environments … Meanwhile, the ANC is closing thousands of schools countrywide as the public education system collapses in provinces like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo."
The campaign did not have a genuine interest in saving schools, he said, but was "merely an ANC front to help its cynical attempt to take power back in the Western Cape".
Magnus de Jongh, spokesperson for the Save Our Schools campaign, told the M&G in August that closing some schools would result in "pupils being barred from certain areas, creating a Group Areas Act situation".