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Mboweni’s budget cuts are undermining the right to basic education

It is astonishing that while the pandemic has highlighted the painful consequences of the government’s failure to provide schools with basics such as clean water and safe toilets, school infrastructure funding has been further reduced, say the writers. (Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

No one can dispute that the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for South Africa. Faced with a constrained budget, National Treasury has had to make difficult decisions. Learners, teachers, parents and members of civil society cannot accept the drastic budget cuts to the basic education sector, and the devastating impact these will have on school communities and the realisation of the right to basic education.

The Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), which will be tabled this week by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, has to provide some relief and reverse the budget cuts made to the basic education sector when the Supplementary Budget was tabled in June.

The state of basic education pre-Covid-19

South Africa’s courts, including the Constitutional Court, have said that the right to basic education consists of certain core components, including safe and sufficient infrastructure, scholar transport, textbooks, and desks and chairs.

The country’s Constitution also says the right to basic education is immediately realisable — this means that the government cannot use money as an excuse for not making sure every learner has access to education. This shows the importance the Constitution places on basic education as a way of achieving the broader constitutional goals of equality, dignity and freedom.

However, the reality for many learners is very different.

One of the critical barriers to accessible and equal education is infrastructure in poor and rural schools that is unsafe and does not support quality teaching and learning. Despite the Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure being signed into law in 2013, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and provincial education departments have failed to eradicate plain pit toilets and replace all schools made of inappropriate materials.

Considering the achingly slow pace of infrastructure delivery, it is highly unlikely that the government will comply with the next legally binding deadline and targets that it set for itself — that by 29 November 2020 all schools must have proper fencing and enough classrooms, electricity, water and toilets.

“Our education system is grossly unequal, especially the public sector, it has been neglected for such a long time now and the government is coming back and taking a huge chunk of money out of the sector. We need that money to get a lot of resources for us in this moment, especially Matrics so that we can complete our final year in a proper way. I think that cutting money for the education budget is a no no.” – Lawrence Manaka, JB Matabane Secondary, Grade 12, Equal Education member.

“Budget cuts are totally wrong because as much as Covid-19 is affecting the health department, it is also affecting the department of education. Because of having to cover all the social distancing that is happening in schools, means that we have to have more infrastructure because we have less learners in classes. So it is totally wrong and I feel that is compromising education.” – Yolanda Magugu, Charlotte Maxeke Secondary School, Grade 12, Equal Education member.

The government has de-prioritised basic education funding over the past five years. For example, since the 2016/17 financial year, every year has seen less funding allocated to the DBE than the year before when inflation is taken into account. In the February 2020/2021 budget, the DBE’s budget decreased by one percentage point when inflation is taken into account.

The consequences of de-prioritising education include reducing the school infrastructure grants, the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) and the DBE’s Second Chance programme that supports learners in passing their matric exams, over the next three years.

On top of this, recent research shows that the government’s spending per learner has been declining by an average of 2.3% between 2009 and 2018 when inflation is taken into account. This means that each year South Africa invests less and less money on learners despite the overwhelming challenges and inequalities they face.

These budget cuts have also exacerbated the exclusion, indignity and discrimination that learners with disabilities face. More than 500,000 learners with disabilities are excluded from schools and learning in violation of their constitutional right to basic education. The Finance and Fiscal Commission (FFC) and the Auditor-General of South Africa have identified that the failure of the DBE to implement inclusive education, especially the allocation of appropriate resources, for example infrastructure to accommodate these learners, contributes to their exclusion.

Therefore it can be safely said that, before Covid-19 hit South Africa, the basic education system was already facing serious funding challenges, driven by the National Treasury.

Basic education funding during Covid-19

While it can be understood that the pandemic has placed an unprecedented cost burden on the state, the government’s choices, articulated in the Supplementary Budget tabled several months ago, are deeply concerning and shocking.

The Budget Justice Coalition, in its submission to the Finance Committee on the Supplementary Budget, said that:

“The budget showed little understanding of the State’s constitutional obligations to fully utilise available resources to protect people against hunger, unemployment, social insecurity, declining availability of health care, basic education and access to electricity, among others… the Supplementary Budget proposes a deepening of austerity this year and into the medium-term, contributing to a regression of socio-economic rights that is unprecedented in the democratic era.”

Surprisingly, before the Supplementary Budget was tabled, basic education was not declared a frontline sector. This means that basic education was not given any more funding to deal with the difficult challenges brought about by Covid-19. Instead, basic education was seen as a “donor” department, whose funds could be sacrificed to provide support to departments viewed as “frontline”. As a result, the Supplementary Budget slashed basic education funding even more, further undermining the realisation of the right to education.

A budget represents a government’s priorities. By not declaring basic education a frontline sector in the fight against Covid-19, National Treasury has exposed its limited understanding of how schools can be leveraged as sites for health education about the pandemic, the fact that many learners access basic services — including psycho-social support and meals — at schools, and the importance of investing in a new generation so that they may realise their aspirations. Budget cuts to basic education in the Supplementary Budget include:

  • R2.1-billion taken from the DBE’s overall budget. Some funding that was previously allocated to longer-term projects such as support for maths, science and technology and for learners with profound intellectual disabilities, was cut.
  • A net total of R1.7-billion was cut from school infrastructure grants alone, and a further R4.4-billion has been reallocated within these grants to cover Covid-19 expenses.
  • No new funding was allocated to the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP). In addition, R50-million was reprioritised within the programme to fund emergency hygiene measures.

It is astonishing that while the pandemic has highlighted the painful consequences of the government’s failure to provide schools with basics such as clean water and safe toilets, school infrastructure funding has been further reduced. Already, 1,938 school construction projects, funded through the Education Infrastructure Grant, have been stopped or delayed.

Furthermore, it is surprising that Minister Mboweni and his department have missed the opportunity to put more money towards the NSNP, at a time when the government has acknowledged that many people are experiencing increased hunger and has committed to providing relief.

Schools have been forced to use their already overstretched budgets to provide Covid-19 necessities — which means they are unable to maintain infrastructure and unable to buy school furniture or even textbooks.

As outlined in the BJC’s Alternative Human Rights Budget, the tabling of the MTBPS on Wednesday must:

  • Be a progressive, pro-poor budget that will ensure that basic education funding maintains positive growth and keeps in line with inflation specific to the sector, as per the Basic Education Price Index;
  • Ensure that allocations towards school infrastructure are increased;
  • Ensure that the NSNP has the funding required to perform its functions while schools are open and in cases where learners do not attend school every day; and
  • Ensure that education becomes a frontline sector in the fight against Covid-19.

The government’s emphasis on the importance of education must be backed up with funding that meets the needs of South Africa’s schools. DM/MC

This article is by Jane Bornman (Equal Education parliamentary officer and researcher), Hopolang Selebalo (Equal Education co-head of research) and the Education Working Group of the C-19 People’s Coalition.

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