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Picture: 123RF/97207521
Picture: 123RF/97207521

Education infrastructure receives large budget allocations. However, many pupils in the country still risk their lives using unsafe pit toilets and in inappropriately built classrooms. As SA celebrates 29 years since the end of apartheid, it is worth reflecting on how the education budget — previously used as a tool to deepen inequality — can overcome the systematic legacy of apartheid through efficient spending, promoting the right to access quality basic education for all. 

Infrastructure can either be a catalyst or a barrier to the attainment of quality education. In March a pupil’s body was found in a pit latrine in an Eastern Cape primary school, a province where over 1,000 schools still use pit latrines. This is a devastating fact to reckon with considering the province’s forfeiture of R100m of the Education Infrastructure Grant (EIG) budget in 2022/23 that was unspent. And it happened six years after Equal Education’s 2013 campaign that forced the basic education minister to publish the Minimum Uniform Norms & Standards for Public School Infrastructure and replace inappropriate school infrastructure by November 2016. 

While Section27 has highlighted the devastating impact of dwindling spending allocations towards basic education, we welcomed above-inflation allocations towards education infrastructure. School infrastructure spending through the EIG has shown a trend of above inflation investment over the years, outside a Covid-19 cut of 10.5%, which was subsequently restored to 24.2% the following year (2021/22). Many provinces are completely reliant on the EIG for the construction, upgrading, repair and rehabilitation of public school infrastructure.  

The above indicates that the quantum of funding may not be the biggest barrier to the achievement of adequate school infrastructure. In 2021/22 education departments in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga forfeited more than R400m of funding that was meant for school infrastructure projects. The funding was reallocated to other provinces that had demonstrated better capacity to spend the money. In 2021/22 underspending of the EIG led to R200m being moved to KwaZulu-Natal from the Eastern Cape.

While this may mean KwaZulu-Natal pupils benefit from better quality infrastructure, especially in a context of increasing frequency of floods damaging schools, those in the Eastern Cape (also subject to destructive floods) are disadvantaged as they continue to attend schools with mud classrooms and dangerous pit toilets. The inability of some provincial education departments to utilise the above-inflation allocations to the budget results in Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s assertion that the dividends of a postapartheid SA remain skewed and unequal for rural black pupils. 

This phenomenon continues in Mpumalanga, where the education department failed to spend R311m in 2022/23. This is especially concerning as the province reported a “huge” school infrastructure backlog and 551 schools with pit toilets. In late 2022 it was reported that more than 200 pupils at a special-needs school in Mpumalanga were still using pit toilets. Failure to utilise the budget allocated to redress this means 29 years after apartheid these pupils’ rights to education continue to be violated. 

It appears the national department of basic education is well-intentioned in reallocating unused infrastructure funding to provinces that are capable of spending these funds to ensure that public funds are actually spent advancing the realisation of education. However, there is an unintended advancement of inequality in that pupils who happen to attend schools in provinces with better spending capacity will benefit, while those attending schools in poorer capacitated provinces are further punished by their provincial department’s inability to spend. Schoolchildren in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga continue to attend schools with dilapidated infrastructure; Gauteng and Western Cape, which received their unspent allocations, are even more equipped to protect the right to basic education for their pupils.  

Overcoming chronic underspending in the provinces 

Underspending of the EIG in the provinces is often attributed to procurement problems and cash flow pressures. It is imperative that the department explores how procurement delays will be urgently addressed. Moreover, there is a need to prioritise training and capacity-building initiatives to build local and provincial governments’ ability to efficiently plan and procure school infrastructure.  

Moreover, it is crucial that the reliance on implementing agents, who are subsequently not held accountable for failure to complete school infrastructure projects, is explored. To ensure that the right to basic education is realised for all pupils in every province, we call on effective consequence management for these implementing agents and prioritisation of building internal capacity of the provinces to utilise this funding.  

Strengthening education budget oversight is a powerful tool towards redressing chronic underspending. It is difficult for South Africans to consistently track how provinces are progressing in their implementation of the minimum norms and standards owing to inconsistency in provincial reports being made publicly available. Of particular concern is the lack of reports for 2020 and 2022. Budget accountability has been found to result in less corruption and more efficient public service delivery.  

Quantum of basic education spending 

Basic education receives the second largest share of the national budget at R309.5bn (13.8%) after debt service costs at R340.5bn (15.2%). However, in recent years budget allocations to education have been reduced in real terms, with funding per pupil being cut from R22,552 in 2022/23 to R21,630 in 2023/24 (constant 2022/23 rands). Reducing the quantum of spend of basic education affects the quality of spend as it means less funding to capacitate provincial departments to the monies allocated to eradicating unsafe infrastructure.  

Until we can effectively utilise the education budgets to guarantee the right to basic education for all learners in the country, irrespective of race, gender, social status or origin, the dream of a free SA remains deferred. 

• Lencoasa is a budget researcher at Section27.

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