Maverick Citizen: Education

The battle for the right to safe education goes to Parliament

By Zukiswa Pikoli 23 October 2019
Caption
Equal Education school infrastructure campaign (Photo: supplied)

On 22 October 2019, civil society organisations Equal Education Law Centre and SECTION27 met with the Basic Education parliamentary portfolio committee composed of the ANC, DA and IFP Members of Parliament, with the EFF conspicuous in its absence. Sadly, what was supposed to be a serious engagement on very real challenges facing the education system, was overshadowed by the ANC MPs questioning who funded these organisations.

LIMPOPO, SOUTH AFRICA ñ MARCH 18: Mpepule Primary School pupils practice mathematics on March 18, 2016 in Limpopo, South Africa. Pupils and teachers at Mpepule primary are forced to sleep in the classrooms because thereís no transport to take them home. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

The meeting was to discuss their respective reports on the State of Education and Limpopo Sanitation. The air was collegial as everyone in the room introduced themselves at the behest of the chairperson Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba.

Up first was EELC who highlighted key thematic areas of their State of Education report which spanned from 2014–2019. The areas were funding and spending trends, Early Childhood Development (ECD), infrastructure and sanitation, learner transport and exclusionary admission practices.

On funding and spending trends, EELC recommended that the portfolio committee ask that the Department of Basic Education (DBE) provide a detailed, time-bound plan to address the failure of provincial education departments to meet minimum per learner funding and budget thresholds, a call that they noted should also include consultation with National Treasury.

They acknowledged that one of the challenges facing basic education is inter-departmental co-operation, a factor that was recently highlighted in the 2018 Norms and Standards case where different departments required to co-operate ended up finger-pointing and passing the buck. On learner transportation they made an example of KwaZulu-Natal having 170,000 learners needing transportation and only 58,000 having access to transport, disadvantaging the remaining 112,000 who are forced to cover long and often perilous distances to get to school. They went on to detail that there was an inconsistency in qualification criteria for learners to receive transportation across provinces as well as inconsistent data further inhibiting the process.

Their submission highlighted that the migration of ECD from the department of Social Development needed to be carefully monitored, emphasising the importance of an implementation protocol in order to ensure a smooth integration into basic education. This protocol was also to provide specificity on the roles and responsibilities of the involved parties, indicating clear timeframes for the execution of these roles and responsibilities.

On exclusionary practices EELC made specific mention of undocumented learners and immediately dispelled the commonly held assumption that these learners were mainly foreign children. They explained that the majority (about 80%) are actually South African and for a myriad reasons do not have identification documentation; however, what was of significance is that whatever the reason, the Constitution is clear that every child in South Africa has the right to basic education and this right needed to be upheld.

Local school children from the Bonkhe community walk home down the dusty rural road from their local community hall near King Williams Town, South Africa, 02 March 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

SECTION27 was next, presenting their interactive multimedia report on the state of Limpopo sanitation. It kicked off with images of learners who that had died or been injured as a result of inadequate and unsafe sanitation in their schools. One of the learners mentioned was Lumka Mketwa who fell into a school toilet in the Eastern Cape in 2018 and died. Ironically, Lumka’s death occurred around the same time Equal Education and SECTION27 were arguing for the state to adhere to their prescribed infrastructure Norms and Standards.

They went on to discuss the 2018 judgment by Muller, J on the Michael Komape case requiring the Limpopo department of Education to conduct an audit on Limpopo schools and come up with a costed plan to address the issue of poor sanitation in order to ensure that learners were not endangered when using school toilets. The Limpopo Department subsequently reported back to the Polokwane Hight Court that the plan could only be implemented as of 2026 and was to be completed in 2030. They discussed at length the inaccuracy of the data produced by the Department of Basic Education which brought into question the efficiency and effectiveness of any plans that they would base on their flawed data collection. One of SECTION27’s submissions when it came to basic education budget analysis was that a big part of the problem they had discovered was that the department was wasteful and guilty of fruitless expenditure.

It seemed members of the committee largely welcomed the two presentations and reports from the civil society organisations, with the DA noting that one of the challenges with school infrastructure, particularly sanitation, was a lack of maintenance. They noted that the ECD migration to Basic Education would only be effective if it was resourced and capacitated accordingly. ANC committee members were less agreeable, however, as they maintained that the government was doing well under the circumstances.

They questioned the credibility of the two organisations and queried who they were funded by, insinuating that they might be serving a nefarious agenda to discredit the government. These assertions sent shocked murmurs through those in attendance.

EELC Executive Director Nurina Ally did not take the insinuations lightly and asserted that their funding sources were stated publicly on their website and no secret. She went on to say that she found the comments unfortunate and disheartening as they were there not there as enemies of the government.

SECTION27 Head of the Education Rights programme, Dr Faranaaz Veriava, echoed these sentiments, emphatically stating that it was unfortunate that their credibility was being called into question in the combative way it was. A bristling Veriava said that they represented human rights and not any faceless individuals as alluded to by the members. Listing her human rights and educational credentials, she reiterated to the committee that SECTION27 was a public interest law firm that provided legal representation to those who are unable to access it from big law firms.

It was a tense moment as the party members of the committee discussed how much of what was being implied was a result of political posturing. The chairperson tried to quell the waters however by apologising if any offence had been taken as a result of some of the questions.

What was fruitful in the exchange and mutually agreed was that it was necessary for the provincial education departments to come and account for the findings in the tabled reports. The national Department of Education was also represented at the meeting and registered a willingness to meet and engage with the issues raised in the spirit of meaningful engagement, a point both organisations agreed to continue to take up.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been at pains to emphasise the importance of having the voice of civil society represented as they are the ones at the coalface of citizens’ struggles on various matters the state is unable to reach. MC

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist with Maverick Citizen. She previously worked for SECTION27.

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