Eastern Cape mud schools progress stalls

The Eastern Cape education department predicts it will have eradicated all mud schools in the province by 2022 — six years later than promised by the national minimum norms and standards set by the national education minister, Angie Motshekga.

Schools built out of mud, wood, zinc and asbestos should have been fixed or replaced by November 2016, according to the standards for public school infrastructure released by Motshekga in November 2013.

But, in a written reply to the Eastern Cape legislature in Bhisho last month, education MEC Mandla Makupula said there were still 436 mud schools in the province, which he said should be phased out by 2022.

Even this date is not certain: “It is dependent on the circuit school landscape plans to identify if the schools in the plan are viable, and the availability of budget,” Makupula said.

He said the cost of eradicating all such schools was estimated at R19.9‑billion but that the amount could drop to R16.9‑billion through efforts such as the “rationalisation” of some schools — merging smaller schools and closing others.

Makupula said 367 of the mud schools had been allocated to the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative. The programme was launched in 2011 to deal with the school infrastructure backlog in the country. The other 69 mud schools were allocated to the province to be dealt with through a conditional grant.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian last week about school infrastructure in rural provinces, the spokesperson for the national department of basic education, Elijah Mhlanga, said that because the province included two homelands — the former Ciskei and Transkei — its issues were “peculiar”.

“In the Eastern Cape, the eastern part of the province [the former Transkei] had no schools at all,” he said. “The majority of the schools there were built by communities using their own hands, using mud and water. The western part had schools that were built by the former regime.

“So when you allocate funds now, how do you do it? Do you favour the one part over the other? You can’t be seen to be favouring one part, which means then the part that was historically worst off will continue to be worst off and the one that had some level of resources will continue to benefit.

“You have to catch up but, even in catching up, you are also perpetuating a problem — because where you could do more, you are forced to do the same as the other part and you end up with long periods of time continuing with not much of a difference,” Mhlanga said.

The province needed strong political leadership to ensure that areas with persistent problems were focused on trying to address the imbalances, he said, but the responsibility for this lay with the provincial premier, and not with Motshekga.

Another difficulty was that senior managers did not stay in positions for long enough to carry out projects. “You did not have a CFO [chief financial officer], you did not have a finance manager, you did not have an HOD [head of department] staying for an extended period. The infrastructure [in the] department did not exist and that is why monies were returned to treasury because there was no one to plan, finalise plans and commit monies and deliver. So those were the challenges,” Mhlanga said.

The fact that the province was large had also complicated management issues, he noted. “Delivering on school infrastructure was a big, big challenge in the Eastern Cape … There was [a lack of] scholar transport, which had been stopped at some point; school nutrition, which had also been stopped at some point; and in that same process schools had also not been built at the rate that was required,” Mhlanga said.

This was why the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative programme was so concentrated in the Eastern Cape, Mhlanga said. Of the estimated 180 schools that have been built by the programme so far, 141 are in the Eastern Cape.

“Even with that, if you go to the Eastern Cape it looks like we have done nothing and [the programme] is just a small project, which is supposed to supplement what the province has already been doing.”

Mhlanga said things would soon start to take a different turn, as a new provincial education department head had been appointed and a new infrastructure team was in place.

But education advocacy group Equal Education said the provincial department did not meet the 2016 deadline for eliminating mud schools because it had failed to plan properly and its database was inaccurate.

The co-head of Equal Education in the province, Luzuko Sidimba, said: “Our understanding is that the backlog is about 800 inappropriate schools in the Eastern Cape and not 400 … they don’t even know some of these schools … So that’s why we are sceptical about trusting the figures they present in public. Are those figures accurate? Because we have made it clear to them that their data is not accurate.”

Equal Education is counting on a judgment to be delivered in the Bhisho high court after it took the basic education department to court to compel it to meet the infrastructure targets it had set to fix schools.

In the case, heard in March, the organisation alleged that there were unconstitutional loopholes in the norms and standards, which the department was using to sidestep its responsibility to fix schools. The group also wants what it calls “inappropriate wording” in the law to be fixed. it claims that this is also preventing the department from doing what it is supposed to do.

Sidimba said, if the organisation won its case, it would mean that each school could take the department to court for failing to build appropriate structures for teaching and learning, which would be seen as a violation of a pupil’s rights to proper schools and dignified sanitation.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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