This year, thousands of mostly black children have been negatively affected by the lack of adequate classroom capacity in the poorer areas of the Western Cape. This fiasco, which opposition parties in the Western Cape provincial legislature, education activists and NGOs have been highlighting for several years, is indicative of the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) persistent ineffectiveness in carrying out this crucial provincial function.
An excerpt from a letter written by a concerned parent to the WCED serves to illustrate the frustration of thousands of parents with the WCED’s policies, practices, and administrative systems:
“I applied to five high schools via the online system and subsequently submitted the supporting documents to the schools. So far 3 schools has rejected my application on the basis that the schools are Maths and Science focus schools.”
The parent went on to ask the following questions:
“What is the purpose of the online application system if it only means applying and then still having to go and take the hard copies to schools and schools reject you? The school then gets the option to manipulate the system by rejecting you on the basis of an incomplete application when you have submitted all documents. Who monitors and tracks this system that excludes our children?”
A question asked by a teacher in a Whatsapp group for concerned parents and educators further illustrates the frustration being experienced:
“Can someone explain to me why they pushing so for the online system? What is the benefit of it? Almost all my Grade 7 parents struggled with it. A few of us at school set up our laptops and scanners and assisted the parents after school.”
This situation prompts substantive concerns about monitoring and accountability within the WCED’s school placement system.
Although most provinces struggle to place all children on the first day of school due to late submissions, capacity issues and high demand for certain schools, the situation in the Western Cape points to a deeper and more serious crisis of racial inequity, a lack of transparency and administrative injustice that we feel duty bound to ventilate in public.
This situation is disturbing, especially in a province that receives substantial public funding from the national government for basic education. It raises serious questions about the allocation of the WCED’s increased R2.54-billion budget that was earmarked last year (2022/23) specifically for school infrastructure maintenance and the building of additional classroom capacity.
In the ongoing school placement fiasco in the Western Cape, David Maynier, the DA MEC for Education, has resorted to misdirection in an attempt to shift blame for the persistent shortage of school capacity for poorer children, most of whom are black.
In a recent opinion piece in the Cape Argus on 10 January 2024 a week before the opening of schools, Maynier preemptively blamed the national government for the WCED’s failure to ensure adequate capacity and timely school placements as required by Section 29(1) of the Constitution.
However, examining the facts of the basic education landscape in the Western Cape exposes Maynier’s clumsy attempt at a cover-up and calls into question the perception that the DA-led government utilises national public resources equitably and more effectively than the governments of all the other provinces.
1. Budgetary mismanagement and inequitable allocations to poor schools
Over the past four years (2019/20 to 2022/23), the WCED returned R829-million to the national fiscus due to under-expenditure. These funds were crucial for addressing inadequate school capacity and to improve the quality of education in impoverished areas of the Western Cape and especially in the City of Cape Town. The annual reports of the WCED can be found here.
In the 2020/21 fiscal year, during the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WCED returned R556-million, including R196-million earmarked for school infrastructure, reflecting a policy position of withholding resources that has negatively affected basic education in poorer communities.
This racially skewed crisis persists despite a 48% increase of the 2022/23 budget (to R2.54-billion) for school infrastructure. This again calls into question the WCED’s policies and its decisions about allocating these resources across the schools in the province.
In 2023/24 the school infrastructure budget increased again to R2.74-billion, an 8% rise under challenging fiscal conditions nationally. This further exposes Maynier’s deceptive and nonsensical explanation that the lack of school capacity in 2024 is due to a drop in the allocation of infrastructure funds in the 2023/24 fiscal year.
2. Racial disparities in the provision of basic education
If the WCED had been serious about building school capacity for poorer communities and in improving the quality of learning and teaching in those communities, it was undoubtedly provided with substantial resources by the national government to do so over the past four years – resources that ultimately were not used for these purposes and returned to the national government or were allocated to other purposes in the province.
A 2022 study by the Equal Education Law Centre revealed a range of issues that disproportionately impacted black children from poorer urban communities, and this again highlights the racial inequity in the DA-led WCED’s policies and practices.
Visits to public schools in poor areas which are predominantly attended by black children reveal stark, persistent and even worsening contrasts in infrastructure (buildings, grounds, facilities and equipment) when compared to public schools in more affluent areas which are predominantly attended by white children.
Thus, it is very surprising that the DA is now demanding additional powers from the national government when it is failing to fulfil its current responsibilities in one of its most important provincial functions.
3. Administrative failures and unfair circumvention of WCED processes
The WCED’s poor administrative procedures and systems force desperate families to navigate a confusing and expensive school placement process, therefore producing a dire situation for families that cannot afford these costs. In many cases children that are placed get placed at schools that are far away from their homes, thus incurring further cost burdens for those households that often struggle to put food on the table.
The situation has become so fraught that it even led DA MPL Gillion Bosman to invite disgruntled parents on a Whatsapp group for parents of unplaced children to contact him directly to intercede on their behalf. As a provincial politician, Bosman’s questionable intervention in the WCED’s published school placement process for some parents that have access to him further exacerbates the problem of administrative injustice (queue-jumping, preferential treatment, political interference) and leaves him open to the charge that he may be unduly influencing school placements for political gain.
In relation to the questions asked by the parent quoted above, it is evident that there are serious concerns that need to be addressed urgently, not only from an administrative justice perspective, but more substantively from the perspective of racial prejudice and the constriction of the rights of many children to basic education.
4. The declining quality of education outcomes
The prolonged lack of school capacity for black children has resulted in a decline in the WCED’s matric pass rate, which has fallen to fifth place among the provinces in 2023. In a recent article, Stellenbosch University’s Prof Nicky Roberts and co-author of this article, Dr Lydia Plaatjies, highlighted this outcome, linking the decline to neglect and under-resourcing of secondary schools attended by black children.
They also found that the quality of matric passes had dropped significantly among schools in poorer communities, stating that “if the DA wanted to play politics with the matric results, it may be worth noting that only 26% of bachelors passes came from no-fee schools in the Western Cape. This is a damning finding in terms of equity and redress for the DA-run province.”
5. Anti-constitutional policies and the need for action against the WCED
The WCED’s evident pursuit of an anti-constitutional education policy and its failure to effectively fulfil this crucial provincial function prompts this clarion call for action.
Against the backdrop of such inequity, ineptitude and public deception, the DA’s demand for more provincial powers in the Western Cape is preposterous.
Considering the seriousness of these interrelated issues, a complaint is being prepared and will be lodged with the Public Protector and the South African Human Rights Commission to request these Chapter 9 institutions to investigate the WCED’s policies and resource allocations which, prima facie, are prejudiced against poor black children and may cause incalculable damage to their prospects.
It is hoped that the outcome of such investigations and the intervention of the national government will help to force the DA-led WCED to alter its current trajectory of racial discrimination and public deception towards greater equity, transparency, accountability and better service of the public interest in the spirit of our Constitution. DM