Mail & Guardian

Education department settles school furniture case out of court

30 Nov 2012 14:30 | Bongani Nkosi

Many schools in the Eastern Cape lack basic infrastructure. (Ryan Grey, Reuters)

Many schools in the Eastern Cape lack basic infrastructure. (Ryan Grey, Reuters)

Sipho Mgcanyana, chairperson of the school governing body at Mbananga Junior Secondary School in the Eastern Cape, is waiting with bated breath for desks and chairs to arrive at the school.

Mbananga is one of three rural schools the basic education department agreed in court on Thursday it would supply with sufficient furniture before the start of the 2013 school year. Settling out of court in a challenge brought by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), the department agreed it would deliver furniture to Mbananga, Mpimbo and Sirhuldwini schools before pupils go back to school next year.

An audit on the number of schools in the province currently without desks and chairs will be completed before March, and the department agreed to ensure all such schools have their furniture by end of June. The department will set up a task team to investigate all schools without furniture within the next two weeks.

But Mgcanyana, who was a second applicant in the court case, told the Mail & Guardian he is in the dark about when exactly furniture will be delivered. "I'm at the school right now and there are still no desks. There is nothing at all," Mgcanyana said speaking over phone today.

"I have no idea when they would be delivered. But I hope they will arrive during the December holidays, so that when schools reopen there should be desks."

Pupils at Mbananga have been "sitting on the floor since the school was built", Mgcanyana said. This has led to some pupils getting sick, he added.

In a media statement, Mlingeni Madzodzo, an applicant for parents of learners at Mpimbo Junior Secondary School said: "When the schools receive the furniture our children will start getting a proper education as they won't use their books as seats, and will actually use them. The department has promised us furniture before, but we have faith that this court order will mean that they actually deliver this time."

The LRC represented parents of pupils at Mbananga, Mpimbo and Sirhuldwini schools, as well as the Centre for Child Law, in the application it brought in October. In its court papers the department argued financial constraints prevented it from supplying desks and chairs to every pupil but it was doing its best.

But the court order states that the LRC will return to court if the department fails to supply furniture to all school by June 30 2013. The centre said it would be compelled to return to court for a ruling on "exactly what the state's responsibilities are in terms of providing learners with their Constitutional right to basic education when faced with budgetary constraints".  

"We agreed that if the department is unable to provide then we will go back to court," Cameron McConnachie, LRC attorney, said. "It doesn't mean that if the [department] doesn't have enough money they don't have to provide furniture for learners."

But in a province that has been compelled by budget constraints to cut the number of teacher posts next year, McConnachie is aware there are possibilities the centre might have to go to court again.

The Eastern Cape education department announced in September it would shed nearly 4 000 teacher jobs next year, and cited financial constraints for this decision.

The department also has some figures about school furniture backlogs. According to the LRC, a 2011 audit of furniture needs found that over 500 000 pupils lacked desks and chairs and approximately R270-million would be required to reverse the shortages.

Loyiso Pulumani, the Eastern Cape education department's spokesperson, could not be reached for comment.

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