Communities take Eastern Cape education department to court over non-delivery of stationery and textbooks
After stationery and textbook deliveries were delayed for more than 3,000 schools in the Eastern Cape because of ‘unprecedented budget shortfalls’, communities have turned to the courts for help.
Education activists in the Eastern Cape are heading to court to obtain stationery and textbooks for thousands of learners in the province after the Eastern Cape Department of Education told schools that deliveries would be delayed by weeks because of financial constraints.
The department told more than 3,000 schools in the province that their stationery deliveries would be delayed for an “indeterminate time” and their textbooks would arrive between March and May.
Schools were told to use last year’s stationery. One school in Gqeberha had only 11 mathematics textbooks, eight English textbooks and 12 social science textbooks for 220 learners and no textbooks for some subjects.
“This school year has started with an unprecedented failure to provide schools with [stationery and textbooks],” said Petros Majola from the Khula Community Development Project, the organisation taking the department to court.
He said that despite several requests, the department was unable to explain what was going on.
“It wasn’t even that the information provided was unsatisfactory or incomplete — there was absolutely no response, except an internal acknowledgement that those offices could not assist in formulating one.”
He said education department officials had shown no “accountability, urgency or diligence”.
The urgent application for delivery of stationery and textbooks before 31 March was filed against the Eastern Cape Department of Education, the provincial government, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and the national government. The applicants have asked that progress reports on the 31 March delivery be filed to a judge.
Before 2021, schools had money deposited into their bank accounts to buy textbooks and stationery, but after the system was centralised schools have become dependent on the department for deliveries.
The applicants are seeking an order from the court confirming that the right to basic education includes an obligation on the education department to provide textbooks and stationery before the commencement of the school year.
They are also asking for an order that the failure by the Eastern Cape Department of Education to deliver textbooks and stationery in time is a violation of children’s constitutional right to education and that a “memorandum” filed by officials to explain the late delivery be declared unconstitutional.
Apart from blaming budget constraints for the delay in deliveries, the department also stated in this memorandum that schools would receive only “minimum core packages” of stationery, with textbooks to follow “sometime” before the end of May.
At the time the Eastern Cape Department of Education’s overdraft exceeded R1.4-billion and it had failed in its efforts to secure millions more from the Adjustment Budget. The departments of education and health receive 75% of the province’s budget.
“Without stationery, learners are unable to function within the school environment. Writing materials such as pens, pencils, notebooks and paper are needed to participate in lessons, projects and homework and are an essential component of what constitutes a conducive learning environment,” said Majola.
He said the Khula Community Development Project was a group of education rights activists and was supported by parents.
“Without textbooks, learners are often unable to effectively follow lessons, learn using prescribed texts, complete homework assignments that emanate from textbooks, or prepare for tests and examinations,” he said.
Majola said they had tried to ascertain which schools had not received textbooks and stationery “and whether they will ever receive them”. He said the failures on the part of the provincial education department violated children’s right to equality.
“One of the purposes in a province such as the Eastern Cape is to guarantee access to opportunities to persons who were previously denied such opportunities by reasons of race. It is submitted that the class, geographic location and socioeconomic status of the affected learners in this matter also means that they have no independent means of access to such learning materials and are wholly dependent on the state
“The affected schools and learners are situated in some of the most impoverished areas of the Eastern Cape… if they are unable to obtain learning materials timeously, this affects their ability to learn, which has a knock-on effect for the future of their education.”
Majola said they had not been informed about the reasons for the budget shortfall, but added: “Where there is a duty to budget for meeting a constitutional right, it is not an excuse for the government to allege that it did not budget for it.
“I am advised that in these circumstances, relying on budget shortfalls as an excuse to delay the procurement and delivery of stationery and textbooks to children is a violation of the Constitution.
“We are five weeks into the 2022 school year and learners at thousands of schools have no stationery and have not been provided with updates regarding when they can expect to receive it.
“The Supreme Court of Appeal said that basic education should be seen as the primary driver of transformation in South Africa.
“The right to basic education holds a special place in our constitutional order. Unlike other socioeconomic rights, it is not subject to available resources and progressive realisation qualifications.”
He said a “schedule” provided by the department was “broad and vague” and there was no way for schools to know if they should have received textbooks and stationery by now or if they had missed out.
Busisiwe Ngqine, who serves on the school governing body for DD Siwisa Primary School, said that like many other parents she too was unemployed and could not afford to buy stationery for her children.
“This has had a devastating effect on my children’s experience of school,” she said.
“My children in Grade 6 have had to find old workbooks from previous years and tear out unused pages so they have something to write on in class… My children are doing a lot less work because they have very few places to write… I worry that they will not pass and that they will have to repeat Grade 6.
“As a school we have not heard anything about when we will receive stationery, except for a notice that said that we would receive it by 15 February.”
Lazola Mweli, who teaches at Alfonso Arries Primary School in Gqeberha, said in papers before the court that the school had not received a full complement of textbooks since 2012.
He said there was not a single grade in the school where every learner had a textbook.
“For a large number of the grades and subjects we have less than 10 books for the entire grade, while the rest of the subjects only have books for about a fifth of the grade.”
He said parents had been asked to buy paper so they can copy the textbooks they have. “It costs about R23,000 a month to make copies. Alfonso Arries is a no-fee school. This is an enormous additional cost for the school to carry.
“The start of the 2022 academic year was chaotic. Many learners had no stationery and had nothing to write with or anything to write in.”
Sandiswe Matin, a mother of one of the children at Alfonso Arries, said they had been asked to supply R164 worth of stationery.
“I only receive the child support grant, which amounts to R460 per month.”
According to papers before the court, some stationery was delivered to Alfonso Arries on 14 February, but not enough for all the children. Matin said she was concerned that her child was struggling to learn from photocopied pages as, for instance, it was difficult to teach him about colours from a black and white photocopy.
She said if the department delivered textbooks at the end of May, her children would have spent the first half of the academic year without textbooks.
“I am worried that my child will be behind academically,” she added.
Another parent at Alfonso Arries, Nonqaba Goleka, said she received R650 a month from the Community Works Programme, but used most of her income to buy food. She has three children in schools where stationery and textbooks were not delivered.
“My income is minimal,” she said. “I use most of the month to buy food. The additional costs for stationery were very high and made January 2022 a very difficult month in trying to feed my family and caring for our basic needs.”
The application is scheduled for hearing on 15 March. The government respondents have not yet indicated their course of action in the legal action.
In January 2022, Yusuf Cassim, the Democratic Alliance’s provincial spokesperson for education, said learners at 4,703 out of 5,451 public schools in the Eastern Cape had started the school year without receiving textbooks.
“The Democratic Alliance will be referring the matter to the Human Rights Commission, as textbooks are crucial in fulfilling a learner’s constitutional right to education, and the failure of the department to budget appropriately and place orders on time has resulted in a callous and unnecessary deprivation of this right.”
Cassim said it was already clear at the end of 2021 that the textbooks and stationery would be delayed as orders had not been placed on time.
“The department had cut per-learner school subsidies significantly, while norms and standards budgets were also drastically cut, making it impossible for schools to afford to place orders for the textbooks and materials required.
“Instead of ensuring a textbook in the hands of every learner is prioritised, the department opted to rather enter an illegal procurement to lease tablets at more than double their purchase costs from ANC cadre Iqbal Survé’s, Sizwe Africa IT group,” he said.
“The department continues to incur mounting liabilities to Sizwe Africa for damaged and missing tablets, whilst none of the tablets are being used by learners as the contract is under high court review.” DM/MC