Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO
Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO

The Gauteng government will not be able to eradicate all schools constructed entirely from asbestos in the province at once, although it will be building 34 new schools over the medium term, education MEC Panyaza Lesufi says.

Gauteng education was allocated R40.8bn of the province’s R108bn budget for the 2017 financial year.

The province’s education department identified 29 schools made entirely of asbestos that had to be replaced by the deadline at the time. But another 215 schools made partially of asbestos were identified, to which the norms and standards deadlines did not apply.

Under apartheid, the roofs of homes and other buildings in Gauteng’s townships were built from locally made, corrugated asbestos cement sheets. The sheets are dangerous when inhaled as they do not decompose and remain permanently lodged in the lungs, which can lead to fatal diseases. This is why it is banned in construction in many countries, including the UK.

Some of the school children attending asbestos-heavy schools will benefit from the new, safe schools that the province will be building, but the MEC did not clarify on how many.

At the province’s budget vote on Tuesday, Lesufi acknowledged the need for speedy action in eradicating asbestos-heavy schools, but said there were not enough resources to do so in the desired time frame.

MPs questioned the MEC and Gauteng premier David Makhura about why delivery took as long as it did and why providing services such as school maintenance was clouded by financial mismanagement.

Lesufi said the mammoth task of demolishing and temporarily relocating entire school communities required careful planning and authorisation from local authorities, which the department had secured.

He said because asbestos was such a dangerous substance there were legal processes that needed to be followed to make sure it happened effectively. In the meantime, children continued to attend these deadly schools.

Makhura said an additional R12bn budget was set aside for infrastructure in the province and his office would deal simultaneously with the asbestos schools while tackling new challenges that arose.

Nationally, the eradication of such dangerous schools had also fallen through the cracks, stalled by underspending. The two main school infrastructure grants — the Education Infrastructure Grant and the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative — had failed to meet national needs and deadlines.

As per the national schools act, norms and standards deadlines required that schools without any access to water, electricity and sanitation be provided with these basic services, and that all schools built from inappropriate materials such as mud, wood, metal and asbestos be replaced by November 2016.

The two programmes and their budgets will be merged after the 2017-18 financial year, with the aim of pooling resources and funds for targeted action.

Lobby group Equal Education has expressed outrage at the government’s gradual decrease in projected budget allocations to these programmes, despite their legal obligation to provide the identified schools with infrastructure.

Equal Education said the Treasury reported that in the first quarter of 2016-17, the Department of Education spent only R176m against a projected amount of R929m. Underspending was on the cards for 2017 as well.

Compensation of employees comprises the largest portion of the budget, amounting to R30.2bn, with an increase of 7.2% translating into R2bn from the 2016-17 financial year. The goods and services budget, which includes school nutrition, school maintenance and examinations, increased 26.1% to R4.7bn in 2017-18.

The transfer of payments of subsidy allocations to public and independent schools amounts to R4.2bn and the budget for payment for capital assets decreased from R2.7bn to R1.5bn.

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