Apartheid legacies in South Africa’s basic education system have proven difficult, although not impossible, to shift. Democracy has brought with it a more inclusive education system, far more equitable allocation of education funding, a more balanced curriculum and universal primary school enrolment. However, enormous challenges remain: decrepit school infrastructure; school premises that are vulnerable to crime; the ad-hoc provision of reliable, government-subsidised scholar transport; and devastatingly low literacy levels in the foundation phase. These challenges disproportionately affect poor, black learners – particularly those living in rural regions.
Over the past decade, Equal Education (EE) members have advocated for government to improve the school environment – which saw the historic promulgation of the school infrastructure law, formally known as the Regulations Relating to Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. We recognise that poor learning conditions contribute to poor learning outcomes, which entrench education inequality.
The Norms and Standards stipulate deadlines by which particular infrastructure necessities must be provided at all public schools. For example, the Norms and Standards stated that by 29 November 2016, all schools made entirely of inappropriate materials (mud, asbestos, metal or wood) ought to have been eradicated, and that all schools ought to have been provided with access to water, electricity and decent toilets. The Norms and Standards prohibit the use of plain pit latrines at schools.
This legal framework is backed by budget allocations set aside specifically to fund the building and fixing of schools. The provincial Education Infrastructure Grant (EIG) and the School Infrastructure Backlog Grant (SIBG), which funds the nationally administered Accelerated Schools Delivery Initiative (ASIDI), both allocate ring-fenced funding to education departments for this purpose. The 2018 Estimates of National Expenditure on Basic Education show that R 9 917 734 was allocated towards the EIG and R 1 472 726 towards the SIBG, for the current financial year.
The Minimum Norms and Standards have already made a difference in the provision of basic services to schools. The 2018 National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) report – the most frequently updated report on school infrastructure available – illustrates a significant improvement from 2013, when the Norms were first published. In 2013, 1 772 schools had no access to water, compared to 0 in 2018; 2 925 schools had no access to electricity compared to 269 in 2018. A staggering 822 schools had no form of sanitation at all in 2013, compared to 37 in 2018.
However, our ability to hold government accountable is hampered by the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) questionable data collection procedures. In a written response to a Parliamentary question in March 2018 the DBE contradicts these numbers, stating that there are 49 schools without access to water. Earlier this year, the DBE was instructed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to conduct an audit of sanitation needs at schools across the country. Numbers from the rapid audit also seem to differ from the NEIMS data. Without accurate data, it will be near impossible for the DBE and for provincial education departments to remedy infrastructure backlogs.
What we do know is that the implementation of the Minimum Norms and Standards has been far slower than planned. The ASIDI programme, initiated in 2011, had originally anticipated to completely rebuild 510 schools within three years. Seven years down the line, and only 189 have been constructed.
EE has visited numerous schools across the country where learners and teachers must make use of undignified and dangerous toilets, classrooms that are made of mud and where roofs are near collapse. In January 2014, five-year old Michael Komape died when he fell into a dilapidated pit toilet at his school in rural Limpopo. In August 2015, school caretaker Mtundini Saphepha sunk into a two-metre deep pit of mud and human waste at Kalalo Primary, three hours’ drive from Stutterheim. He struggled to escape for nearly half an hour. In November 2016, EE visited the same school only to find that the same pit latrine had not been filled with sand or cement, and was still not entirely sealed off to learners. Earlier this year, five-year old Lumka Mkhethwa drowned in a pit latrine at her school that ought to have been inaccessible to learners and demolished.
Disturbingly, the Department of Basic Education announced cuts to basic education funding during the 2018/19 budget vote speech, particularly school infrastructure funding. Over the 2018 Medium-Term Expenditure Framework period, the combined cuts to the EIG and SIBG amount to R7.15 billion.
That being said, budget shortages do not fully explain the DBE and provincial departments’ inability to execute their mandate to eradicate poor school infrastructure. Conditional grants such as the EIG and the SIBG, have over the years been fairly well funded, but due to these departments’ failure to spend their full infrastructure budgets, National Treasury has reduced these funds.
In the case of provinces such as the Eastern Cape, poor work by implementing agents – entities responsible for building schools on behalf of the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDoE) – and the ECDoE’s failure to hold them to account, has contributed significantly to poor service delivery. These implementing agents have failed to perform efficiently, with project delays and contract cancellations, being common cause.
What does this all mean?
The basic education sector finds itself in a conundrum. On the one hand we have legislation that speaks directly to the provision of adequate infrastructure for all public schools, along with specific deadlines. In addition, funding has been provided, and yet the DBE has not demonstrated the urgency required. On the other hand, reduced infrastructure grants in the face of inefficient spending, will be detrimental for those whose education experience is marred by inadequate and unsafe facilities.
The sluggish delivery, or non-delivery, of school infrastructure is the result of concomitant, systemic problems. Limited and flawed data on schools, outsourced work to third parties with unclear lines of responsibility and oversight, and the slow procurement of contractors and built environment professionals are challenges that face the government.
Ultimately, the implementation of the Norms and Standards hinges on capable provincial and national leadership whose political will is unwavering, and whose commitment to accountability is unequivocal. Further side-stepping, hand-wringing and dilly-dallying will certainly compromise the realisation of the right of many South African children to safe and decent school infrastructure. And their Constitutional right to a basic education.
|Authors: Roné McFarlane and Hopolang Selebalo, Co-Heads of Research, Equal Education|
 Equal Education, School Infrastructure Campaign, available at: https://equaleducation.org.za/campaigns/school-infrastructure/
 Sanitation facilities can include ventilated improved pit latrines.
 Pikoli, Z., 42 years later, learners are still dying, Daily Maverick, 15 June 2018. Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2018-06-15-42-years-later-learners-are-still-dying/#.Wyy63RL-ifV
 Equal Education, Planning to Fail: A Report on Equal Education’s Eastern Cape School Visits (2016). Available at: https://equaleducation.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Full-EE-Planning-to-Fail-Report-2017.pdf
 National Treasury, Estimates of National Expenditure, Vote 14: Basic Education (2018). Available at: http://www.treasury.gov.za/documents/national%20budget/2018/ene/Vote%2014%20Basic%20Education.pdf