Meet the Eastern Cape schools the province desperately tries to forget
Despite pleas for upgrades, the government merely makes promises
Themba Msimanga is trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare. He is remarkably calm and exhibits none of the homicidal tendencies many of us might harbour after witnessing five years of determined inaction by dozens of government employees.
Msimanga has been bounced from Development Bank of Southern Africa pillar to department of education post — a cruel punishment for the sin of desperately wanting to repair the school his two children attend.
He is not asking for anything exotic like a science laboratory or a library. All he wants is a school that is safe and reasonably hygienic for his children and their 1,123 fellow pupils.
In 2017, a pupil fell through rotting floorboards. He escaped serious injury but others aren’t always as lucky.
Schornville Primary School is about 10 minutes outside King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. When it was built — out of plywood and asbestos — in 1970 it was meant to be a temporary structure until a school built with bricks was completed.
That was the first of almost 50 years of broken promises.
Msimanga says when his children began attending the school in 2012, it was in desperate need of maintenance; there were gaping holes in almost every classroom floor or wall, through which the cold, wind and rain blew in every winter.
The kitchen had to be converted into a classroom when damaged floors and ceilings made one of the classrooms too dangerous for pupils. This has compromised the school’s nutrition programme, a critical aspect of school life for the children of extremely poor families.
Only five of the 16 toilets are functioning, but only just. Constant use by 1,125 pupils means they are not for those of a delicate disposition.
The principal of Schornville Primary School declines to comment on the state of the buildings, although his anguish is increasingly detectable as the school’s life-threatening flaws are itemised.
Any comment from him would prompt an inquiry — not into the appalling state of the school but into who authorised him to speak to journalists.
Msimanga says since he became involved with the school governing body, no work has been done by, or on behalf of, the Eastern Cape department of education.
When parents gather funds, they use this to paint the most severely worn sections of the school, nail pieces of plywood over some of the gaping holes or patch the wire fencing that attempts to discourage those desperate enough to believe there is something of value behind the run-down façade. Given the dilapidated state of the school, it is a Sisyphean task that eats up their meagre resources.
"Much of the school is made of asbestos, which makes it difficult to fix the holes because no one is making asbestos anymore," says Msimanga.
During the past four years, Msimanga has spent many hours in earnest discussion with, he believes, almost every official involved in ensuring compliance with the official regulations relating to minimum and uniform norms and standards for school infrastructure.
These are the regulations Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was forced to promulgate in 2013 in terms of a court order — the outcome of an Equal Education campaign.
Since 2011, Equal Education, which describes itself as a democratic movement of pupils, parents, teachers and community members, has campaigned for the government to provide basic school infrastructure to all public schools.
After much letter-writing, petitioning and marching, in 2012, the organisation decided to resort to the courts to secure the rights enshrined in the Constitution and the South African Schools Act.
The "norms and standards" regulations are basic stuff. All schools made entirely of inappropriate materials such as mud, asbestos, metal or wood must be replaced by new schools. And schools must be provided with access to water, electricity and sanitation.
What Msimanga and his colleagues on Schornville Primary’s governing body want is nothing more than is provided for in the regulations. Without it, pupils are being demeaned and schooling becomes that much tougher. When it is evident that the authorities do not take education seriously why should young pupils?
In 2012, the school was promised a new building. Nothing happened. But, in a bizarre bid to demonstrate the government’s determination to do something, officials assured the governing body it was at the very top of the provincial government’s priority list, as though this was a coveted position.
The next four years were full of meetings and promises, interspersed by protests.
Msimanga has talked to the chief director of infrastructure and the chief director of infrastructure planning; he attended workshops at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, which he believed to be the relevant implementing agent contracted to build the school, and he formed a steering committee he was told was necessary.
None of the officials told Msimanga he was wasting his time. If they had, they would have had to explain why and that would involve explaining how decisions are made and would require someone to take responsibility. By eternally promising him renovations, they escape responsibility.
In 2015, things seemed to move up a notch — dates were set down. The school was promised that a new structure would be in place by September 2016. But when the 2017 school year started, there was still no sign of any preparation for building work.
In a bid to show it was now serious, the Development Bank of Southern Africa drew up plans for a new school building. Construction was set to take place between April and September 2017 and the R66m needed was in the bag.
By November, a few more planks had been hammered in to cover dangerous holes in the thin plywood walls, a few more windows had been smashed by intruders and the five remaining toilets were about to become health hazards.
Msimanga was told the R66m had disappeared and the only funds left were earmarked for consultants whose job, no doubt, was to continue making promises. "They couldn’t tell me where the money was gone. How does that happen?" asks the perplexed Msimanga.
At Vukile Tshwete Senior Secondary School, about a
40-minute drive from the centre of King William’s Town, the implementing agent, Coega Development Corporation, has been promising that the former wooden army barracks would be replaced by a new R16m school. The planning stage had been allocated R3m.
Soil samples were taken, meetings held and plans drawn up for a school that would be built by 2016. When nothing happened, there were more meetings and more promises.
Coega told the school governing body to set up a steering committee and conduct a skills audit of local community members so that they could be involved in the building. There was no building work and no sign of any preparation for building work throughout 2016. There were more meetings.
In June 2017, workers arrived and erected a sturdy steel fence around the school and around a large plot of land nearby that has apparently been identified as the site for the new school.
Coega recently told the school governing body that building would start in 2018 and take 18 months to complete.
"We have no idea what’s happening. Why is the government punishing us?" asks Zamie Mabamba, chairman of Vukile Tshwete’s governing body.
Imiqhayi High School, just off the road to East London, is almost 70 years old and so unstable two classrooms were blown away in strong winds a few years ago.
The rest of the school could crumble at any time. It breaks most of the norms and standards requirements and has been on the priority list for several years.
The implementing agent, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, has been to meetings with the governing body, taken photos and says it believes the school should be demolished and rebuilt.
Nothing has happened.
It now appears the development bank was only engaged to provide Portakabin-type toilets to replace the dangerously dilapidated and unhygienic old ones. It believes the school should be replaced but says it does not have the authority to give effect to that belief.
Implementing agents are at the heart of this Kafkaesque nightmare, their existence evidence of the government’s inability to deal with the problem and the Department of Public Works’ unwillingness to do so.
As with many of the government’s tragedies, the intention behind establishing the system of implementing agents was not malevolent or shady.
In the case of schools on land owned by the Department of Public Works, the agent is appointed to implement a programme or project on behalf of the department.
In its appropriately titled report on Eastern Cape schools, Planning to Fail, Equal Education describes the combination of human resource deficits, political contestation and poor accountability that lies behind the Eastern Cape department of education’s consistent inability to improve education.
Equal Education says the situation must also be seen in the context of a history of deliberate underdevelopment of the province during apartheid. Introduced in 1953, the intention of Bantu education was "to entrench white supremacy by denying black children a quality education and preparing them only to work as unskilled and semi-skilled labour on the mines, factories and farms and in the homes of white people".
No doubt the situation was further complicated by the merging of former homeland education departments.
The implementing agents were established in a bid to deal with the Department of Public Works’ lack of capacity for school building. Critically, they are overseen by the dysfunctional Eastern Cape department of education.
The intention was that the agents, largely state-owned enterprises and public entities, would interact between the schools and the government and project-manage the work to improve schools infrastructure.
The Development Bank of Southern Africa, the Coega Development Corporation and the Independent Development Trust have, for various reasons, failed to deliver even the most basic support to some schools.
Unbeknown to Msimanga, at Schornville Primary School, the education department had reclaimed that building project some time ago and has given it back to public works.
Likewise, the development bank says it is not responsible for Imiqhayi High School, although the school governing body believes it is.
The Coega Development Corporation, which is the implementing agent at Vukile Tshwete Senior Secondary School, says the fencing was the "first phase" and that the second, which "includes the submission of the planning, project scope, cost and quality of infrastructure" has just been completed. It says construction of the school will start in early 2018.
At St John’s Primary School in East London, the Independent Development Trust (IDT), which received a rebuke from SA’s auditor-general because of glaring inadequacies in its annual accounts, oversaw the building of a state-of-the-art early childhood development centre. Few employees at the primary school know who requested this multimillion-rand facility, but they wonder why the IDT has been unable to deliver their long sought-for toilets or new prefabs to replace decaying structures. The IDT says it was asked to build the development centre only.
This kind of confusion contributes to the belief that the introduction of implementing agents has done little more than add another pillar for school governing boards to be batted to; each one claiming the other has responsibility for whatever decision needs to be taken.
Avoiding responsibility has become an art form in the plush corridors of the Eastern Cape government. A request is rarely refused. That would be tantamount to taking a decision. Instead promises are made … somebody will do something, sometime in the future.
It would be difficult to design a system less likely to deal with the needs of the intended citizens and more likely to create power for politicians.
For decades, there has been no clear division of powers and functions between the players.
Add to that the intense levels of politicking and an almost complete lack of transparency and it is little wonder tens of thousands of parents in the Eastern Cape have little faith their children will ever enjoy even the most basic of educational facilities.
Equal Education contends a primary cause of nondelivery is the lack of transparency.
The departments of education and public works, in consultation with the implementing agents, divvy up the work and award tenders behind closed doors to contractors and consultants. The allocated work often doesn’t get done.
In 2017, only six schools were built in the entire province. Equal Education says a central monitoring system needs to be implemented that would allow the schools to track what is happening to their applications.
It would allow schools to track how agents procure contractors and built-environment professionals, and see how these contracts are managed.
Implementing agents also need to ensure that steering committee meetings with schools actually happen, so parents can stay up to date on construction progress.
Such monitoring might help to ensure agents are allocated projects on the basis of their capacity to successfully deliver.
In the absence of concerted and transparent action by the government, the chilling reality is that ANC-led structures are now effectively implementing the apartheid government’s policy of damning tens of thousands of children to a life of unskilled and semi-skilled labour — or unemployment.