South Africa

First Limpopo, now the Eastern Cape: Section 27 battles education chaos

By Greg Nicolson 30 July 2012

The department of basic education averted a potential scandal last week as it agreed to provide teachers to Eastern Cape students. The province seems to have relented as higher political forces had too much on the line. But another battle rages over schools’ access to support staff. By GREG NICOLSON.

The lack of teachers in the Eastern Cape (against the surplus in other areas) had the potential to match the Limpopo textbook scandal, perhaps worse. Reading material is all well and good, but without teachers, books have limited use. 

Once again, the government would be perceived as failing its students, South Africa’s future and the long-term solution to the jobs crisis. Basic education minister Angie Motshekga may as well have abandoned her seat in Cabinet, and another cross would have gone against President Zuma’s record.

But the potential public education debacle was averted last week as civil society groups made an out-of-court agreement with basic education to provide teachers to Eastern Cape schools.

Legal action by school governing bodies in the province, represented by Section27, who had partnered with the Centre for Child Law, resumed last Thursday after a delay earlier in July when basic education argued for a postponement. The groups argued that students’ right to basic education includes teachers.

For years, teachers in the Eastern Cape have been distributed unevenly across the province. There’s an excess of up to 8,000 in some areas, mostly urban, where teacher to student ratios are the lowest in the country. Shortages in other areas have caused high ratios, with parents having to pay staff from their own pockets.

“As a result, tens of thousands of learners are being starved of teachers, and parents in the poorest communities are having to take money out of their own pockets to pay for teachers and other essential staff,” said Section27 executive director Mark Heywood before the 12 July Grahamstown High Court date. 

The provincial department and national basic education seemed set on delaying the process. To the consternation of the school governing bodies, the civil society organisations and Eastern Cape students, they were taken to court to provide a basic service, which for years had been billed as a problem. In court, they ignored the merits of the case and were only prepared to argue against the issue’s urgency.

So what changed? Although the province is so riddled with service delivery controversies that another would perhaps not make much difference, Motshekga’s position as minister of basic education is tenuous. In a recent NEC meeting, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe reportedly led the attack on her handling of the Limpopo textbooks scandal. Zuma cannot afford another controversy ahead of Mangaung and neither can Motshekga, if she has any hope of keeping her job.

The out-of-court agreement stipulates that vacant posts as identified by the province’s 2012 post-provisioning plan must be filled with immediate effect. Teachers in areas of surplus will have to be moved to areas in deficit and the government must report on its progress. The agreement also requires government to finalise the 2013 post-provisioning plan by the end of September and implement it by 2013.

“Depending on how expeditiously they implement this order, it’s a very, very positive step for schooling,” said Heywood. 

Anne Skelton, director for the Centre of Child Law, told Mail & Guardian, “A settlement basically means we have a major victory… The department has acknowledged that is has to [meet our demands], but there are some details we need to discuss.”

It’s also important to remember that many schools in the Eastern Cape suffer the same conditions as many of their counterparts across the country, denied suitable infrastructure and learning materials. 

The effectiveness of the out-of-court agreement will largely depend on the deals reached with the unions on conditions of relocation. Motshekga recently suggested the application wouldn’t be settled in the courts as a deal had been made with unions on the norms of post-provisioning, but details are yet to emerge. In terms of the agreement the department must pay all temporary teachers, appointed officially or not, who have been filling the vacancies.

Still in dispute is the issue of non-teaching staff. The applicants argued in the high court that non-teaching staff fall under the rights of a student’s right to education. The education department presented a 1996 moratorium from the Limpopo treasury against hiring non-teaching staff, which appears to have been implemented intermittently since then.

Access to teachers is obviously a basic right, said Mark Heywood, but the pending judgment on non-teaching staff could set a groundbreaking precedent. After Section27’s application regarding Limpopo textbooks, a student’s right to basic education now requires textbooks. If Judge Clive Plaskett finds the department must provide non-essential staff, thousands of jobs will be funded and the quality of education could markedly improve.

“Many of these schools don’t have security or cleaning staff,” said Heywood. “Teachers do the cleaning and administration or they don’t get done. That plagues functionality.”

Speaking for the applicants, Steven Budlender described the burden of a high school in Mary Waters to Grocotts Mail. “The school is a non-fee paying school which means parents cannot afford to pay school fees. How are they expected to pay for non-teaching staff? It has been 10 years since the school had a receptionist, and educators end up doing the administrative work.”

It’s a tragedy of modern South Africa that concerned parents, teachers and civil society groups need to consult the courts to access teachers and school support staff. But each case defines the parameters of rights and will hopefully prevent another catastrophe.

Government still needs to implement the ruling and with the outrage over the situation in Limpopo and the Zuma administration’s need to keep its nose clean, now seems the right time to get things done. We can only hope that after Mangaung, the leaders of the ANC remember government’s responsibilities. DM

Read more:

  • Eastern Cape: teachers, textbooks and Motshekga’s temerity in Daily Maverick

Photo: Children write notes from a makeshift black board at a school in Mwezeni village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province in this picture taken June 5, 2012. REUTERS/Ryan Gray 


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