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Maverick Citizen

Continuing the Conversation: The Gauteng Education Department and the costs of ‘deep cleaning’ schools

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA MAY 25: A general view of Far North Secondary School being disinfected before the reopening of schools on May 25, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)

A necessary vigilance about corruption can easily escalate from asking legitimate questions to full-blown but unfounded and premature public perceptions of corruption.

There are three people who feature in this “case study” of the evolution of the “story” of the “scandal” of the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) and the costs of deep cleaning. I respect all three persons deeply, but I will take issue with two. 

Edward Mosuwe is the head of department (HOD) at the GDE. He is a public servant with whom I have worked closely for at least 10 years. I hold him in the highest regard as a person of integrity and believe him to be a committed and exemplary public servant. I hold Mark Heywood in high regard as an activist who has worked tirelessly for a better South Africa. And I have huge regard for Stephen Grootes and consider him to be one of our finest commentators and journalists.  

In this “case study” I am going to take issue with Mark and Stephen and share my perspective that we need to take more care in telling our stories and consider how we may too casually contribute – even unintentionally – to unfounded allegations which can so easily envelop and destroy our best.

In the article of 26 January, Mark tells us that he made the suggestion to MEC Panyaza Lesufi that he report the expenditure of the department “deep cleaning” schools to the Special Investigating Unit (SIU). To this the MEC cautiously, and correctly, replied that he “would study the expenditure report compiled by the HOD and [chief financial officer, CFO] to determine what immediate action to take and which appropriate institutions of the state to use accordingly”. 

And so the story begins. The linking of “the SIU” in relation to the HOD and CFO has been made publicly.

In Daily Maverick on 28 January, Stephen wrote: “The Maverick Citizen revelation that Lesufi’s department spent R431-million on sanitising schools unnecessarily is one of the biggest corruption claims the Gauteng Education Department has faced.” 

The focus of Stephen’s piece is the examination of possible political consequences of the Maverick Citizen article of 26 January for the MEC of education and deputy chair of the ANC in Gauteng. The “in passing” use of the term “corruption” (even if qualified by “claims”) by a journalist as respected and trusted as Stephen Grootes carries weight – and featured prominently in the layout of the article. 

The assumption of corruption within the GDE may have been inferred by Maverick Citizen’s reference to the SIU. It may have been reinforced by Twitter debates and the sharing of political statements on social media in response to the publication of the first article. But it escalated the progression of the story.

Thus, lesson one of this case study is the need to take care in making casual allegations of corruption – a phenomenon so detested by corruption-weary citizens that “the story” takes on a life of its own.  

Lessons two and three come from a critical review of the original piece by Maverick Citizen: Twenty/twenty vision is easy in hindsight. And let us not underestimate the competing tensions between needing firm knowledge as the basis for action, and the necessity of urgent action in the rapidly changing information and the unfolding developments of the pandemic in 2020, within the complexity and scale of the administrative action.

The essence of Maverick Citizen’s article is that:

  1. The “deep cleaning” of schools that took place in Gauteng schools between June  and September 2020 was unnecessary and therefore wasteful;
  2. The numerous small service providers used were not experienced in deep cleaning;
  3. The costs were excessive; and
  4. The SIU should be called in.

Let’s start with deep cleaning and hindsight  

Current scientific advice is that “deep cleaning” of schools is not necessary even when a person who has been identified as infected has been in the school. All that needs to happen is that in the 48 hours after the potential contact, the potentially affected equipment and rooms must be cleaned by wiping surfaces with disinfectants. 

We know this now – but in June 2020, when we were in the grip of a national lockdown and public anxiety, and when there was some resistance to reopening schools, education departments in all provinces were deep cleaning classrooms. The costs of this nationally were enormous. 

The Auditor-General’s First Special Covid-19 Report in September 2020 commented on how schools had “prepared for reopening by deep cleaning and disinfecting school buildings and classrooms” and reported that, according to the records of the Department of Basic Education (DBE), by 31 July 2020 the education sector had paid R1,348-billion to suppliers for personal protective equipment (PPE). 

This is an astounding sum (and more was spent after July). The R431-million spent in Gauteng on deep cleaning before and after July 2020 is a portion of this. 

I do not know how much was spent specifically on deep cleaning schools across the country. Was this necessary? 

We now know from the science that it was not. Was it Gauteng specific? No. It was the dominant practice at the time – and not only in education. In June 2020, I received the following text in an email about my own workplace 

“The Landlord will be carrying out the deep-clean of all the offices /buildings occupied by the Tenants next week starting on Monday as a one-off before staff return. These offices will be kept locked until we receive confirmation of Tenant’s ‘Return Back to Work’ plan aligned with Covid-19 Level lockdown restrictions are lifted.” 

In June 2020, the country was scrambling to understand how to open the economy – and schools – safely. As recently as September 2020, “deep cleaning” persisted in the arsenal of the DBE when reassuring the public that all steps were being taken to protect against the virus. 

On 18 September, the director-general of basic education gave a briefing to civil society on “Readiness for the November Examination”, in which it was indicated that districts would “have a team on standby to conduct deep cleaning and decontamination of the examination venues overnight”. 

Maverick Citizen wrote that,

 “… on June 10 2020 (just as the GDE was beginning its spending binge) the Department of Health issued a categorical statement on ‘cleaning and decontamination of workplaces’ which makes specific reference to including ‘educators/teachers and administrative personnel and scholars returning to school or higher education institutions’ and states ‘The Department of Health does not endorse or require ‘deep cleaning’ that involves fumigation, demisting or fogging. Nor does the Department of Health require such a ‘certificate of cleaning’.”

This timing is crucial. Schools started reopening on 8 June 2020, with Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils returning to classrooms as the government started gradually easing lockdown restrictions, and with the final cohort returning to school on 31 August. The report of the GDE provided to Maverick Citizen indicated that the decontamination, disinfection and cleaning of educational facilities “commenced in June in preparation for the opening of schools on 8 June”.

The advisory of the Department of Health (in which it was considered necessary to counter the pervasive perception that deep cleaning was necessary) was only issued on 10 June. This was several weeks too late to avoid the “unnecessary” deep cleaning that had been urgently put in place to be ready for the opening of schools to ensure the safety of teachers, pupils and school support staff.

The second piece of the argument by Maverick Citizen which requires examination was that “very few of the companies listed in the report appear to have any prior specialisation in disinfection”.   

In the report from the GDE 280 companies are listed. There are 3,044 schools in Gauteng and 38 other facilities, including head office buildings, district facilities, teacher centres, warehouse facilities and education support-related facilities. 

It would seem reasonable to require multiple service providers to be working across the province, given the short time frame to be ready, and it would seem to be reasonable that the majority needed would not have prior experience as these procedures were necessitated by the pandemic. 

The magnitude of the scope of the “deep cleaning” was extensive. To clean and disinfect a school or other facility as a “general precautionary measure prior to reopening” required the labour-intensive procedures of hosing down the floors and walls of every room in the school/facility with water and cleaning detergent; ventilating the areas with fresh air for a minimum of 30 minutes; and spraying risk areas with a solution of specified composition. Each surface, such as handles, had to be cleaned using detergent and warm water. And this had to be done in 3,044 schools with an average size of 2,500 square metres of built-up area catering for at least 1,000 pupils (with an average of 28 classrooms and with admin building and specialist rooms such as a library, laboratory, computer room, media room, multipurpose rooms and consumer studies room). But the process was not over when schools reopened and schools took over the routine daily responsibility of sanitising surfaces (it is this school-based daily sanitising that Maverick Citizen discussed with the principals, not the costs of deep cleaning). 

Across the country, where an infection was reported at a school, the school was closed. In Gauteng, disinfection for the schools that had to close required a process of decontamination, disinfection and cleaning, which was undertaken by service providers who had to ventilate “at-risk” areas for a minimum of one hour, then use hydrogen peroxide gas sterilisation devices for “integrated disinfection of the air and the environment”, or spraying or wiping chlorine disinfectant. These are costly procedures in terms of labour and chemicals. 

The DBE report indicates that in August 2020 the Department of Health shifted the guidelines from decontaminating, disinfecting and cleaning the whole school to “a decreased specified area of contact per case which decreased the scope accordingly”.

The challenges of opening schools in June 2020 in an unprecedented epidemic (which we were all struggling to understand), and the challenges of reopening schools that had been closed by assuring anxious communities that they had been deep cleaned as required by the Department of Health until August 2020, did result in expenditure that was excessive. 

Not only in Gauteng, but across the country. 

But this is the wisdom of hindsight and officials were making decisions in times of perilous pressure. I would resist any insinuation of “corruption” until the Auditor-General, or another independent audit process, reaches that conclusion. And I would ask that we take more care in telling our stories and consider how in raising red flags about complex processes we may contribute – even unintentionally – to premature conclusions which undermine confidence in our best. DM/MC

Professor Mary Metcalfe is an education expert and senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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All Comments 6

  • Unfotunatel;y, these sort of scams arise when each departmnet hides behind the cloak of we got our own advsiors, and are completely oblivious to the advice from the previous NDoH MAC that clearly stated, and articulated deep cleaning and fogging were futile, and paradoxically placed people at risk. Yet, in their ignorance and every other ulterior motive on somne to cash in on the cirsis, they pursue to implement unscientific resposnes, the reasons for which in a country with the legacy of the past years of corruption are not difficult to figure out. An this when we still can’t offer free schooling?

  • Casting a response in a ‘case study’ mold does not avoid the sour taste that this is indeed merely another blame-the-media knee jerk.
    To state that deep cleaning was a fashionable exercise in mid-2020 is not adequate; there was a huge amount of information sharing and discussion about the pathways of transmission for months beforehand. The science then, as does the science now, explained how respiratory droplets with limited range and a finite life-span form the route. If the Department at that stage was still awaiting a policy directive, what exactly did they then base their project on? Which infectious disease specialists were consulted?
    Or was this a case of action, any action, regardless of costs?
    Why is point 3 on excessive costs ignored? This week a professional cleaning company estimated 30 to 50% of the amount spent as their projected fee. But is was reported in the media and seven months later, so it is disqualified as hindsight and careless narrative creation, I suppose.

  • Point taken, but seriously! Do you live in South Africa MM? Do you read? If this is not an open and shut case of clear cut corruption I will eat a hat of your choosing. Your ANC’s track record I am afraid, condemns it. Fix that before bleating about respected journalists and respected citizen activists raising alarm bells. Perhaps add a certified audit that the work was actually performed to standards to back your justification of these costs, and indeed some credibility to your words.

  • Certainly agree on the 20/20 point – there was a moral panic at the time, I remember phone videos being circulated about the state of schools, Twitter and all the rest filled with statements about how desperately needed the deep cleaning was, parents and unions and (of course) politicians all jumping up & down. Wits went through exactly the same, my School was ‘deep cleansed’ – how and by whom and with what chemicals and with what qualifications to do the work I don’t know. That’s not to say there’s no funny business in the numbers, but I think Mary’s basic point is absolutely right – let’s remember the context and time and the roles we all played in adding to the volume. But by Mark’s measure, let’s also now properly account for all that money too. It’s a conversation not an either/or, if I understand the article properly.

  • Point taken. However, R 431 million ÷ 3044 schools = R 112,000.00 per school. Assuming half a day per school with a labour force of 10 people, and the team does two schools per day, mmmm, that’s a fat profit. Hindsight shows it to be wasted money from a small honey pot that the political bears and their cronies have already raided.