Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele is under pressure not to oppose a court application brought by 10 inmates of Durban's Westville prison who want access to laptops, the internet and other study equipment for their Unisa studies.
In a letter to Ndebele, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, the Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust, a prisoner advocacy organisation based in KwaZulu-Natal, says that the minister should show he is "true to his words that he is turning correctional centres into institutions of learning".
Xolani Dlamini, convicted for murder and robbery in 2001 when he was 16, is now a fourth-year LLB student with Unisa.
He brought an application in the Durban High Court on July 19 for the matter to be heard urgently.
Judge Nompumelelo Radebe ruled that the matter be heard on August 12, after all the parties had filed proper affidavits.
The 10 applicants are asking the court to order officials to allow the prisoners the use of "essential study materials, which include but are not limited to laptops or computers, access to the internet, portable CD players [and] memory sticks for study purposes", according to draft affidavits the prisoners will finalise and file with the court by July 26.
Lindo Mdletshe, a lawyer at the Justice for Prisoners and Detainees Trust, told the M&G: "This is the test case for whether [the department] is willing to open opportunities for prisoners to [have] access to education."
Since taking over as minister last year, Ndebele has repeatedly emphasised that prisons should be centres geared towards the rehabilitation of prisoners through education.
About a third of the country's 150 600 prisoners are 25 years old or younger, the ministry said last month.
James Smalberger, Ndebele's chief deputy commissioner, said that because the matter is before court it would be "premature to respond to specific issues" the M&G has raised.
But the department "is confident that the matter will be resolved amicably and court intervention is not necessary".
He confirmed that prisoners are permitted internet access "subject to certain conditions", including proof from a university that this is "integral to [the prisoner's] studies".
However, "under no circumstances will an offender be allowed to use a personal modem to have access to uncapped internet".
"We are turning our correctional facilities into centres of learning, and we will ensure that policy procedures are complied with," Smalberger said.
Dlamini says in his draft affidavit that prison officials stonewalled him when he asked to use a laptop, a printer and the internet for study purposes.
"As a result we can't further our studies as we don't have the required study essentials. Our right to equality is infringed as other inmates in similar circumstances are allowed to use the same study essentials."
If this persists, Dlamini argues: "I will continue to be unable to do my research and I will not be able to finish the degree … The court should intervene immediately to halt [these] violations, which interfere with our rehabilitation process."
Lebohang Molefe, a third-year BEd student at Unisa, says in his draft affidavit that prison officials confiscated a modem he needed to use for his module when it was delivered.
"As a result, I wrote and failed the module that required internet access and lost a substantial amount of money in the process."
The applicants refer to a South Gauteng High Court judgment this year in favour of a similar application by Frank Nabolisa, a Nigerian convicted of drug trafficking along with Sheryl Cwele, the former wife of State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele. Nabolisa is also incarcerated at Westville.
The application also asks the court to compel Westville officials to open the library for use by all prisoners on weekends, not only weekdays.
A further problem, Mdletshe said, is that the library "closes at any time as punishment for gang fights … Officials even punish people who are studying for fights they had nothing to do with."