IkamvaYouth, a nonprofit organisation, works with more than 2,000 learners in five provinces. Picture: SUPPLIED
IkamvaYouth, a nonprofit organisation, works with more than 2,000 learners in five provinces. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sibulelo Ngcauzele, the principal of Vukile Tshwete Senior Secondary School in Keiskammahoek, 40 minutes from King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, is looking forward to the new school year. The reason for his new-year cheer is a mid-December call from Coega Development Corp (CDC) informing him there will be a site handover on January 22.

"This really makes us confident something is going to happen," says a principal who has seen more than his fair share of broken promises.

Of course, the CDC promised in 2016 that the former wooden army barracks, which have been in a dangerously dilapidated state for several years, would be demolished and a new school erected. Three years ago soil samples were taken, meetings held and plans drawn up for a R16m school. When nothing happened there were more meetings, more promises and more plans.

At one stage the CDC told the school governing board (SGB) to set up a steering committee and do a skills audit of local community members so they could be involved in building the school. There was palpable excitement — not just about a new school but about the prospects of employment.

But 2016 came and went without any sign of building work — not even a hint of preparation.

Zamie Mabamba, a parent who chaired Vukile Tshwete’s SGB, was dismayed by the lack of action. "We’ve no idea what’s happening or why the government is punishing us," she said at the end of 2017, when there was still no sign of building activity and 325 pupils had to endure conditions that contravene binding regulations relating to minimum norms and standards for public school infrastructure.

The technical-sounding "norms and standards" regulations, introduced in 2015, are intended to regulate when schools should be built and upgraded, the materials they should be built with, the size of classrooms, and the basic services schools should have, such as sanitation and internet connectivity.

Equal Education (EE), which describes itself as a democratic movement of pupils, parents, teachers and community members, campaigned for years to get the government to commit to providing basic infrastructure to all public schools. In a recently released report, "Implementing Agents, the Middlemen in Charge of School Infrastructure", the NGO points out that the "norms and standards" required that all schools should have had access to water, sanitation and electricity by the end of 2016. Those built of inappropriate materials — mud, zinc, wood or asbestos — should have been demolished and replaced.

Vukile Tshwete, named after an ANC struggle stalwart, represented a contravention of most of the regulations. It was built decades ago of wood that is now paper-thin and rotten, and the toilets are life-threateningly unhygienic.

Spirits rose in June 2017 when, without warning, workmen arrived and constructed a sturdy steel fence around the school and a large vacant plot of land next to it.

The workmen disappeared, leaving behind a gleaming, multimillion-rand ClearVu fence that was considerably more valuable than the school it was built to protect. By one estimate, the fencing around the vacant plot of land could have cost at least 15% of the R16m budgeted for a new school. So money was not the problem.

Essentially, it is a microcosm of all that is holding the entire country back

Months later, with no sign any work would be done on the school — old or new — spirits dropped. In response to media criticism, CDC marketing and communications head Ayanda Vilakazi issued a statement in December 2017 defending the corporation’s role as an implementing agent. In conclusion to the detailed statement, Vilakazi explained that the Vukile Tshwete project had been split into two phases. The first phase was to identify a new site and fence it and the existing school. "The second phase includes the submission of the planning, project scope, cost and quality of infrastructure, which have been submitted to the department, and approval received," wrote Vilakazi, before going on to state: "Thus, the construction of the school will commence in early 2018."

That was the last anyone at the school heard from the CDC. Throughout 2018 the ClearVu fence stood as a taunt to the pupils, teachers and the SGB; a reminder that some things could get done.

And then, just as the year came to a close, the CDC called to say there would be a site handover on January 22.

There seems little point in suggesting to principal Ngcauzele that the CDC sprang into action — or the promise of it — in December and that this may be nothing more than a year-end desk-clearing exercise.

"The new site will be handed over to the contractors, who will be introduced to the project steering committee, which comprises members of the SGB, the community and Sanco [the SA National Civic Organisation]," says Ngcauzele, who explains that though the contractors have visited the site, they did not meet any of the locals.

The CDC has confirmed the "anticipated site handover", explaining that the delay was due to the late receipt of the work permit from the department of labour.

The principal is hoping a new school will stop the outflow of pupils, whose numbers have fallen from a high of 600 just a few years ago. Some pupils just dropped out; others, whose parents were able to scrape together the necessary funds, went to schools further away. The dangerous and dilapidated surroundings are a constant and demotivating reminder to the pupils of how unimportant they are considered to be.

At the other side of King William’s Town, the principal of Imiqhayi Senior Secondary School is not feeling quite as upbeat about prospects for 2019. Luvuyo Bakana has heard nothing since mobile toilets were installed to replace the pit latrines at his school.

Years ago the Development Bank of Southern Africa visited the school and determined that it had to be demolished and rebuilt. It was an easy determination: the 70-year-old building is so unstable that two classrooms were blown away in strong winds a few years earlier. From just a quick glance it’s evident the rest of the school could crumble at any time.

Like Vukile Tshwete, Imiqhayi’s continued existence represents a contravention of most of the "norms and standards" regulations. But unlike Vukile Tshwete, no-one has formally communicated with the school or members of its SGB. Essentially, the school and its 182 pupils have been abandoned. Bakana fears the department might have tagged it for closure. But not even that plan, if it exists, has been communicated to the school.

In April 2018, Waco International subsidiary Abacus Space, which builds modular units, relieved some of the pressure when it donated two new classrooms to the school. Bakana and the pupils were thrilled that not everybody had abandoned them, but the principal says more classrooms are needed so the school can create additional streams and attract more pupils.

In 2004 then president Thabo Mbeki promised that pupils would no longer have to endure dangerous conditions at their schools. At the time there were 572 schools in the Eastern Cape that had been built with illegal materials. According to EE’s report, at the beginning of 2018 the province was still home to 471 of the 600 SA schools built with these materials. The situation persists, says EE, despite the government’s comprehensive commitments, the creation of complex systems and budget allocations.

An earlier EE report on the chronic inability to resolve the problems in the Eastern Cape attributes the situation to a complex combination of human resource deficits, political contestation and poor accountability. Essentially, it is a microcosm of all that is holding the entire country back, including the history of deliberate underdevelopment during apartheid.

Good intentions are laid waste by the complex overlay of two national departments — basic education and public works, which owns the school land — and their provincial equivalents. It doesn’t help that the chronically challenged construction sector is also required to play a central role.

EE’s latest report contains details and flow charts of just what, and who, is involved in a school-building project. It is mind-numbingly complex and provides some justification for the creation of the all-powerful "implementing agents".

These key players receive a hefty fee of between 4.5% and 10% of the cost of a school project to co-ordinate the process and fill any capacity gaps.

What it means

There is a chronic inability to resolve the problems with schools in the Eastern Cape

According to the National Treasury, their role includes the planning, management and roll-out of the design and delivery of school infrastructure; planning and management of procurement; liaising between the client, contractors, suppliers and consultants; and making necessary payments. Implementing agents are contractually bound, by their agreements with the state, to meet several key performance indicators.

Given their central role, it’s probably inevitable that EE regards these agents as key to the Eastern Cape failures. It is not alone. As far back as February 2013, members of parliament’s standing committee on appropriations questioned whether they were necessary.

More recently, Themba Kojana, head of the Eastern Cape education department, said: "If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have implementing agents. We would hire contractors directly."

As EE sees it, a lack of publicly available information has allowed ineptitude to thrive. Without information, civil society cannot compare the actual work of implementing agents against the key performance indicators. Detailed information of the progress of projects does exist in the grand-sounding "education facilities management system" database, but it is not publicly accessible.

EE says the information should be made available so those on the ground, particularly members of the affected SGBs, can track progress. This would also ensure communities are better informed. At present, even principals are kept in the dark.

Remarkably, given that it’s had 10 years of experience with the problem, EE is also optimistic about 2019’s prospects for Vukile Tshwete. Leanne Jansen-Thomas, head of communications at the NGO, says the organisation is encouraged by a number of recent developments, including Kojana’s recent endorsement of EE’s recommendations.

Inevitably, a new provincial minister as well as a president who is aware of the importance of education should also help.

So perhaps Ngcauzele is right to believe 2019 will be a year in which some promises will be kept.