Pupil numbers at the Nkosibomvu Primary School in rural Eastern Cape are dropping because pupils would rather cross a river and a dangerous road to get to another school than stay where they do not have toilets.
“The toilets are the reason why pupils are leaving us,” principal Primrose Mketo tells the Mail & Guardian last week.
“They say, ‘at this school we have to show our buttocks when we relieve ourselves, and we don’t like to do that’.?”
The foundations and walls of the toilet block containing six pit toilets are near to collapse and are too dangerous for the pupils to use. The 218 pupils “just go somewhere down there”, Mketo says, and the teachers share one rickety pit toilet nearby.
Nkosibomvu is one of 457 Eastern Cape schools on a list, drawn up by the basic education department’s Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (Asidi), that are due to be rebuilt, Legal Resources Centre (LRC) attorney Cameron McConnachie tells the M&G.
But Nkosibomvu and about 200 other dilapidated schools in the province have not been allocated an implementing agent, who assigns contractors to the schools.
What this appears to mean, McConnachie says, is that the department is “wavering about whether to replace them or not”.
Two weeks ago, the LRC, representing the Centre for Child Law and five “mud” schools, was granted a court order by consent that forces the department to publish an updated Asidi list of schools in the province that have inappropriate structures.
The department also has to make public its plans and time frames to remedy them. The court order, McConnachie says, “aims to force the department to make a plan which will help it spend its full budget”.
“It has failed to decide what to do with mud schools with low enrolments, and pupils are left to languish in conditions that are not fit for learning and teaching.”
The order is the result of a second round of court action, which is a follow-up to the well-known “mud schools case”, which in 2011 forced the department to commit to replace hundreds of mud schools around the country.
But, despite the department establishing Asidi and setting aside billions of rands, it failed to meet its target of rebuilding 500 schools with inappropriate structures in three years.
According to a press release issued in August by the LRC, “70 schools have been completed, 55 are in the process of being built and for 165 the service providers have been appointed to start the process”.
Hundreds of schools with mud walls, broken roofs and no toilets also appear to have been left off the Asidi list.
So, this time round in court the LRC and the Centre for Child Law changed tack.
They demanded that all schools be made aware of what the criteria are for assessing which schools are placed on this list; be given the chance to motivate to be listed; and, later, be made aware of the specific plans for each school’s improvement.
The court order states the department has 90 days to publish an updated list of schools, “together with a comprehensive plan detailing the scope of the scheduled improvements to the schools on the new list, and when they will take place”.
Given the LRC’s experience of inaccuracies in the department’s data, the LRC decided to visit all 200 schools that the department appears to be wavering on within 10 weeks.
Rufus Poswa, a researcher for the LRC, is driving a bakkie along the road between Ndlantaka village and Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape. He is sweating in the sun and dust comes through the window from the dirt road.
“The department’s lists are not always a true reflection of the state of schools; I don’t even think that the department officials who draw up those lists have even been to all of these schools,” he says.
He stops to ask a fourth person for directions to the next school on the list he is visiting that day. The schools are in rural areas, accessible by gravel roads that only a bakkie can handle, and there are almost no signposts.
Three weeks ago, McConnachie tried to visit a school on the list that was due for rebuilding. He discovered that the school was closed down seven years ago. Another school he visited had already been rebuilt with a donation from Anglo American in 2009.
Poswa doesn’t think the department’s new, court-ordered lists due to come out at the end of November will be much better. “That’s why we are going to schools now … so, when we look at those lists, we will be able to say ‘we’ve been to that school and your plan for it is either reasonable or not reasonable’.?”
Nkosibomvu Primary is grappling with the kinds of problems that many rural schools struggle with: not enough furniture, no running water, no toilets and multigrade classes because of a lack of classrooms and teachers.
There are 42 pupils in the grade one class, which shares its classroom with the kitchen. While a teacher talks about shapes at the front of the classroom, two women prepare vegetables and pap in pots next to pupils.
“The pupils will smell this food and they get hungry, and then they get tired and fall asleep,” Mketo says.
Standing in the wind outside, she tells Pasika Nontshiza, who was working for the LRC that week, that she had made repeated requests to the department for more classrooms.
So it appears the school “is not on the department’s radar”, Nontshiza says.
“Yet it was used as a voting station,” Sechaba Khake, a teacher, points out.
A vague “down there” is also the location of the nonexistent toilets at the Lugalagaxa Senior Primary School in the Mpembe location outside Mount Frere.
The 203 pupils cannot even wash their hands after they relieve themselves at the bottom of the hill below the classrooms because there is no reliable water source. The teachers share two pit toilets.
Aphiwe Mbashe is a grade six pupil at the school. “It’s terrible, because we have to go in the bushes,” he says. “It makes us feel dirty.”
Why not us?
While showing the M&G the teachers’ toilets, Lugalagaxa’s principal, Nomakhosazana Mdutyana, says: “We see nice schools in other places and we think ‘why not us?’??”
At the Lalatshe Senior Primary School, on the outskirts of Tabankulu, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Mount Frere, there are no toilets at all. The banks of the river nearby are abuzz with flies and noisome with the stench of human excrement.
With Poswa translating, a teacher says these are “hard times”.
“We have small kids here, and who knows who’s watching when you are relieving yourself in the bush?” she says.
“It’s also harder when you are wearing pants, because then you have to expose yourself more than when you are wearing a dress.”
What the school’s principal, Martha Nyembezi, says reflects the attitude of so many principals at rural schools like this that have vastly inadequate infrastructure.
It is an attitude that ranges from defiance and anger to sad resignation about the daily struggles staff face in trying to provide their pupils with a dignified learning environment.
“We used to speak to the department about the toilet situation, but then we gave up because they kept telling us they were prioritising other schools that had more children.”
Mketo says she is looking forward to retirement.
“I will stay here at the school until I am 60, and then I’ll leave and go stay with my family, and I won’t have to fight for these school things again,” she says.
The basic education department had not responded to the M&G’s questions at the time of going to print and the Eastern Cape education department declined to comment.