NORMS AND STANDARDS OP-ED
Proposed removal of deadlines for infrastructure improvements in schools will lead to disaster
As the current and ongoing crisis with South Africa’s power grid has shown us, today’s delays are tomorrow’s disasters.
Our education system faces a very real and present danger with the national Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) recent motion to further delay its obligations to improve infrastructure and provide access to basic services in thousands of schools across South Africa. It intends to do this by removing the existing deadlines as prescribed in the regulations relating to the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure.
In 2013, the DBE promulgated the regulations and made commitments that were accompanied by a set of deadlines to implement various interventions by 2016. These deadlines were agreed upon in court and Parliament for our learners and teachers to have access to the most basic of services and, thus, a safe, hygienic environment in which to learn.
They include access to safe, dignified sanitation and, most importantly, the eradication of pit latrines that have tragically cost the lives of young children. The deadlines also include the implementation of basic infrastructure such as electricity, water, classrooms and libraries, and the removal of asbestos. These, let it be clear, are not luxuries or wish lists. These are agreed-upon, legally binding and essential basic prerequisites to secure the future and safety of our children.
The DBE has made proposals in the Infrastructure Improvements regulations providing that “all norms and standards … must be planned, prioritised and phased in line with the National Development Plan”.
However, access to basic facilities in schools cannot wait until 2030 to be attended to. Inappropriate structures, sanitation, overcrowding, supporting educational facilities such as laboratories and libraries, maintenance and disabled facilities are infrastructure priorities that must unquestionably go to the front of the queue.
Sadly, the DBE has a history of extending deadlines when it comes to improving and providing infrastructure. It also has a confusing history of fighting unnecessary legal and political battles with NGOs that rightfully hold the DBE accountable for service delivery by calling on the DBE to play its part in adhering to obligations and fulfilling its national commitments in the education sector.
Need we be reminded of how in 2013, Equal Education won a long battle to force Minister Angie Motshekga to publish and adopt the school infrastructure regulations? In 2018, it succeeded in a second landmark case to firm up the regulations. And, yet, despite these significant milestones, the delays continue, with deadlines missed and continually extended.
What is worrisome, is that pit latrines (for example) are currently illegal, yet they remain utilised at thousands of schools in South Africa. This means that, should the proposed amendments be granted, our children could wait for a decade or longer to see the last pit latrine phased out or to be able to switch on a light in a classroom.
The mechanism that held the DBE accountable through measurable and achievable deadlines will be gone. If this happens, it is highly likely to lead to delay upon delay and that will only lead to another disaster, one that hurts our children and the future of our country the most.
It does not have to be this way. This should not be a battle between the government and NGOs, but a collaboration of effort, expertise, and resources. We are all accountable to our children in different and, yet, equal ways.
The Kagiso Trust is a self-funded development organisation that has more than 30 years of proven track record and impact in the basic education sector. We do not have a bottomless purse, so deadlines force us to focus on projects, set budgets and work efficiently. We have had several meetings with the national DBE discussing infrastructure backlog issues, improvement needs and collaborative investments, especially relating to the eradication of pit toilets. We have told the DBE we are willing to partner with it at national and provincial levels to ensure it meets its deadlines of eradicating pit latrines via crowdfunding initiatives to finance public sector projects and through integration with the development and private sectors.
Kagiso Trust has further committed itself to bring funds to the table and to work collaboratively with the DBE to meet its overall infrastructure improvement and basic service delivery deadlines. To date, our calls for collaboration have been responded to at a snail’s pace and without definitive progress.
Yet, we have made significant strides across multiple provinces and district municipalities nationally; the best example is the Free State, which we have partnered with on its journey to become the province with the most successful matric pass rate in South Africa.
But we take the most pride in building sustainable infrastructure. One example: the Kagiso Trust, in partnership with De Beers Mining and the Free State Department of Education, managed to put in the required funds to rebuild Phuleng Primary School in Free State and equipped it with a fully fledged, brand-new structure with all the necessary basic school facilities together with proper sanitation and clean water.
The quest to delay the implementation of the regulations should be unequivocally disputed by the civil, private and development sectors, in that it is utterly perplexing, disingenuous and foreseeably disastrous.
We ask: is this a management or a financial issue?
Our children’s education has deadlines. Their lives have deadlines. Those cannot be delayed. DM/MC
Themba Mola is the chief operations officer of Kagiso Trust. This article was first published in Beeld on 20 July.