Plans to fix infrastructure in schools aren’t being implemented

Dear Angie Motshekga

As learners of the Eastern Cape we are not happy about our toilets in our schools. They are unflushable and that is a big problem because we get infections and have diseases. Learners don’t go to the toilet because they don’t like the smell coming from the toilets and don’t want to breathe the dirty air. Keeping in urine is very, very dangerous, it can damage your kidneys and we can die. We don’t have sinks with soap to wash our hands. We are very hurt about the way we are in our schools and we are begging you to try very hard to give us better water and sanitation.

From Sinelizwi Blayi, a learner at Z.K. Matthews Senior Secondary School.

This letter was written by an EE member, on Women’s Day, last year. For two weeks thereafter we attempted to have the Eastern Cape Education MEC, and the Eastern Cape Education Head of Department, accept nearly 100 similar accounts from learners in schools in Dimbaza, Zwelitsha, Bhisho, and King William’s Town.

We again tried to hand these letters over to MEC Mandla Makupula on Tuesday morning. He refused to accept them – an MEC in whose province 5-year-old Lumka Mketwa died in a pit latrine a few days earlier.

In the Eastern Cape, there are 1 945 schools with pit latrines on the grounds. In August 2015, school caretaker Mtundini Saphepha sunk into a two-metre deep pit of mud and human waste at Kalalo Primary, outside Mthatha. He struggled to escape for half an hour. “I’m just glad it was me, and not one of the learners. I was old enough to survive, but if it were one of the children – they wouldn’t have made it,” he said afterwards. When Equal Education visited Kalalo Primary in November 2016, that same pit latrine had not been filled, and was not entirely sealed off to learners.

There are 4 358 schools in South Africa where the pit latrine such as the one that Mr Saphepha sank into, is the only form of toilet. The crisis conditions in schools disproportionately affects rural learners.

Last month, Equal Education was alerted that 425 learners of Mmababada Primary in Limpopo were forced to share four buckets to relieve themselves, because the newly-constructed ventilated improved pit latrines were bolted shut due to a dispute over payment. Yet, the latest publicly available National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report, claims that there are zero schools in Limpopo where buckets must suffice as toilets.

The truth about Minister Motshekga’s duty, and budgets

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has recently spoken of how the Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI) has delivered 191 schools to date, and provided electricity to 372 schools. What she did not say was that the target of the ASIDI programme was to rebuild 510 schools by 2014! Or that in the 2016/17 financial year, zero schools – none – out of a target of 620 schools were provided with electricity.

Minister Motshekga’s many excuses for failing to fix our schools include budget cuts announced by National Treasury last month. While we continue to urge National Treasury to reverse the decreases, it is crucial to bear in mind that neither provincial education departments nor the national DBE effectively spend the funds that are already available. In 2015, the Eastern Cape underspent its education infrastructure grant by R530-million. In 2017, the national DBE underspent its budget to build schools in the Eastern Cape (via the ASIDI programme) by R415-million.

There is a law which requires school infrastructure to meet minimum Norms and Standards. Compliance with the Norms and Standards law is not possible without a properly costed budget – but it is also not possible without real and unwavering political will. Budgets must not be a shield behind which Minister Motshekga and the nine education MECs can continue to hide behind.

Government has a duty to lead society, and to marshal all the resources available, both public and private, to achieve quality education for all. This is especially true because the right to basic education is immediately realisable. Unlike other socio-economic rights there is no internal limitation requiring that the right be “progressively realised” within “available resources” and subject to “reasonable legislative measures”.

An intervention on the part of National Treasury should then not be to reduce funds, but should rather be to incentivise transparent and effective infrastructure planning, including creating stronger financial mechanisms to monitor and sanction implementing agents – those entities that build schools on behalf of departments of education (such as the Department of Public Works, Coega Development Corporation, the Mvula Trust, or the Industrial Development Corporation).

Minister Motshekga has this week called an urgent meeting of the Council of Education Ministers (CEM) to discuss how to address the school infrastructure crisis, saying that maintenance and construction was a competence of provincial government. In the face of a grave breach of a constitutional duty, the language of “this is not my responsibility” cannot be allowed to continue – not while the lives of learners are at risk, everyday.

EE has long argued that a safe and dignified school environment is a component of the right to education. It is the collective duty of Minister Motshekga, each of the nine education MECs, and every member of the provincial and national executive to take measures to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the Bill of Rights. Intergovernmental cooperation is paramount: the right to education is a competency shared by national and provincial government. The Constitution specifically requires the two spheres of government to cooperate with one another through co-ordinated action, and mutual assistance and support.

At the same time, there are clear lines of accountability. The Premier, as head of a province, has an obligation to hold MECs who fail in their constitutional duties accountable. Minister Motshekga must ensure that provincial departments are fulfilling their obligations. Yet, last week we heard arguments made on behalf of Minister Motshekga in the Bhisho High Court, that the fulfilment of her obligations and duties are entirely dependant on the cooperation of other organs of state. This is not so.

Our school audits have the facts

President Cyril Ramaphosa has instructed Minister Motshekga to conduct an audit of school toilets, and to develop an emergency plan to eradicate unsafe structures. But the audit and the plans already exist! Does the President not know that the school infrastructure law already exists? While the concern expressed by him is welcome, we are deeply concerned at a directive that undermines the existing school infrastructure law, and its specific timelines.

The Norms law required all the provincial education departments to produce implementation plans in 2014 that audited the infrastructure backlogs, and to annually submit provincial progress reports to Minister Motshekga. The plans and progress reports have not made public by her without sustained pressure from EE – the 2017 progress reports still have not been released. As for an emergency plan to eradicate the worst structures – that is (was) the purpose of the ASIDI programme.

We have handed our own school audits and budget analyses to provincial education departments – identifying schools that are desperately in need but that are not on government’s infrastructure project lists.

The full implementation of the Norms law is a blueprint for eradicating unsafe school infrastructure. Rather than work towards its fulfillment, Minister Motshekga chose to use public funds to fight EE’s legal challenge aimed at improving the law, and accountability.

An unforeseen consequence of President Ramaphosa’s intervention may be that provincial education departments who have persistently been recalcitrant to the infrastructure crisis, use the directive to neglect other concurrent infrastructure projects currently underway, or already planned. The risk is that schools with unsafe structures such as mud and zinc, that have for years been “next” on a provincial department’s infrastructure project list, will find themselves bumped down the queue as efforts are concentrated on toilets alone.

Our call on President Ramaphosa is to require Minister Motshekga to provide reasons for her dire failure to ensure that the existing Norms and Standards law is implemented. To ensure that no more children die simply for wanting to access their right to learn. To ensure that the basic dignity and humanity of our children is respected and fulfilled.

Rinquest is the Co-Head of Equal Education Eastern Cape.

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