South Africa


The global pandemic could become an opportunity to build an equitable, inclusive education system

Pupils from Gugulesizwe Primary School work on their iPads during lesson on March 25, 2014 in Daveyton, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Alet Pretorius)

The coronavirus pandemic created an unprecedented challenge for teaching and learning, but it may have done us some favours as well. The lockdown brought much-needed attention to the importance of connectivity and digital access. Inequality has been a persistent reality in South Africa. The past six months have forced us to confront this head on.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a particularly stark light on the realities of online learning. The NIDS-CRAM Wave 2 Report on education stated that “learners in the earlier grades had the least access at about 30%, while grade 12 learners had the highest at about 50%. At worst this means that about 75% of learners in the foundation phase had no access to online learning, while only half of grade 12 learners had access”.

The lockdown brought much-needed attention to the importance of connectivity and digital access. Before the pandemic, the Unesco Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development reported that close to 3.7 billion people were not connected to the internet. According to the General Household Survey, only 10.4% of South African households have access to the internet. This means that during the hard lockdown, 89.6% of households did not have adequate access to online resources, including learners in those homes. 

The coronavirus pandemic may have created an unprecedented challenge for teaching and learning in 2020, but it may have done us some favours as well. A truism is that inequality has been a persistent reality in South Africa. The past six months have forced us to confront this head on. Questions of safety and access to food and housing were already at the forefront on 26 March when lockdown level 5 was introduced. The subsequent impacts of the lengthy lockdown were dire for many – shedding light on the grave differences pertaining to access to resources and mechanisms critical to staying safe in Covid-19 times. Workers in the informal sector face increased income precarity while residents of informal settlements faced food insecurity very early into lockdown, according to the Human Sciences Research Council.

The impacts on teaching and learning are instructive. The disruptions have the potential to exacerbate what Unicef refers to as a global learning crisis – increased enrolment and access to learning with little or no impact on learning outcomes, basic literacy and numeracy.  It is well-known that South Africa’s significant investment in basic education is not reciprocated by learning outcomes. And while overall expenditure has been increasing, without detailed information on subnational expenditure over time, our ability to assess progress towards reducing inequality is drastically compromised. This is especially vital when factoring in the costs of the Covid-19 response. Are there opportunities to address this through more transparent, inclusive planning and budgeting? 

What do the policies say?

South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) has set out various targets to be reached by 2030. This particular policy, which supplements the Department of Basic Education’s Action Plan to 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025, states “the priorities in basic education are human capacity, school management, district support, infrastructure and results-oriented mutual accountability between schools and communities”.

Concerning digital access, the policy identifies access to high-speed broadband as well as the use of mobile devices as priorities in infrastructure development and the distribution of learning. 

The reality is that few of these priorities have been achieved since the development of this plan in 2012.

School inequality

The Constitution guarantees everyone access to learning that enables them to exit high school with the same capabilities and opportunities. However, that is not the case. The driving factors of the learning crisis in South Africa include geographic disparities. For instance, when factoring in the relative ease that some urban learners have when it comes to travelling to school compared with rural or peri-urban learners who may need to walk long distances or traverse difficult terrain, the inequality picture becomes arguably clearer. 

Now, factor in access to water and sanitation. An estimated 3,710 schools still have pit latrines as ablution facilities at school. The Auditor-General’s report raised further concern as only 2,193 of the promised 2,624 water tanks were successfully delivered and installed at schools across South Africa. This has a particularly gendered impact as lack of access to sanitation affects girls more acutely. The picture of inequality becomes even more augmented. 

As schools reopen, the existing inequalities cannot be ignored, nor can we allow the system to go back to where it left off without a serious overhaul or reinventions. 

According to the 2019 National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS), out of 19,822 schools in South Africa (excluding micro schools) 7,220 (36.42%) have computer centres – in the Eastern Cape, only 528 (12.47%) out of 4,234 schools have computer centres. This makes it almost impossible for learners in over 63.5% of schools in the country to take up e-learning opportunities as they are not equipped to use online resources for educational purposes.

The digital learning divide is evident in South Africa, with learners from rural and poorer provinces and backgrounds bearing the brunt. Additionally, their schools are often marked by poor infrastructure, overcrowding, high dropout rates and fewer teachers.

Budgeting and the MTBPS

For years, civil society organisations have invested significant resources to advocate for better access to school infrastructure, water and sanitation. The learning crisis has shown us that access is not a determinant of quality learning outcomes. There is a need for a greater focus on the quality of teaching and learning as well as on the impacts of corruption and mismanagement. 

On 24 June 2020, Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni tabled a Supplementary Budget, shifting key resources within the existing 2020/21 budget to meet the demands of the pandemic. For the education sector, this had some adverse shifts including some of the largest reprioritisation – R4.4-billion within the Education Infrastructure Grant was reprioritised to support, inter alia, the purchase of sanitisation materials and equipment, as well as funding salaries for temporary staff to screen learners and clean and sanitise school facilities.

As we look towards the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), the government can take positive steps to try to turn the crisis into a moment to reduce inequality and implement systems that build accountability within the education department and oversight bodies in the country. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to restructure education and make it more equitable and inclusive. 

The Department of Basic Education, as well as Parliament, must create meaningful opportunities for communities, parents and civil society organisations to participate in crafting more responsive, targeted, budget programmes. 

Besides broader access to information and communication technology in our schools, the department must build capacities of teachers, speed up infrastructure delivery and stabilise electricity supply or fund alternative sources of energy for remote schools and communities. 

This is tied to an immediate increase to the education sector budget, with better and inclusive planning transparency to allow monitoring and tracking.  

To improve transparency, the Department of Education should produce quarterly progress spending and performance reports which should be presented to provincial legislatures and other oversight bodies.

According to the policy brief by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Covid-19 reveals vast differences between social groups, but it’s also a perfect time for governments to install proper policy responses. 

If this opportunity is lost, the crisis, its economic and social impacts will likely deepen inequality, intensifying public discontent and further weaken trust in public institutions. DM

Andile Cele is a research and advocacy consultant at the Public Service Accountability Monitor as well as coordinator of the Budget Justice Coalition, a network of South African civil society organisations working collaboratively to build people’s participation in and understanding of South Africa’s budget and planning processes. A former parliamentary officer at Equal Education, Cele is also the network support adviser for the Online Progressive Engagement Network (OPEN), a global sisterhood of national grassroots campaigning organisations working across 20 countries.


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