Our education system faces a very real and present danger with the recent motion by the National Department of Basic Education (DBE) 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 time limits as prescribed in the regulations relating to the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure.
In 2013, the DBE enacted the regulations and made commitments with a set of deadlines to implement various interventions by 2016. to the most basic services and thus a safe and hygienic environment in which to learn.
They include access to safe and dignified sanitation facilities and, above all, the eradication of pit latrines that have tragically claimed the lives of young children. Timelines also include setting up basic infrastructure such as electricity, water, classrooms and libraries, and asbestos removal. These, let’s be clear, are not luxuries or wishlists. These are basic, agreed upon, legally binding prerequisites essential to ensuring the future and safety of our children.
The DBE has made proposals in the infrastructure improvement regulations that “all norms and standards…should be planned, prioritized and phased in accordance with the National Development Plan”.
However, access to basic amenities in schools cannot wait until 2030 to be supported. Inadequate structures, sanitation, overcrowding, supportive educational facilities such as laboratories and libraries, maintenance and facilities for the disabled are infrastructure priorities that must unquestionably go to the top of the list.
Unfortunately, the DBE has a habit of prolonging deadlines for improving and providing infrastructure. It also has a confusing history of unnecessary legal and political battles with NGOs that rightly hold the DBE accountable for service delivery by calling on the DBE to play its part in fulfilling obligations and meeting its national commitments in the education sector.
Do we need to be reminded how in 2013, Equal education won a long battle to force Minister Angie Motshekga to publish and adopt the school infrastructure regulation? In 2018, it succeeded in a second landmark case to tighten regulations. And yet, despite these important milestones, the delays continue, with missed and continually extended deadlines.
Worryingly, pit latrines (for example) are currently illegal, but they remain in use in thousands of schools in South Africa. This means that, if the proposed changes were granted, our children could wait a decade or more to see the last pit latrines disappear or to be able to turn on a light in a classroom.
The mechanism that held the DBE accountable through measurable and achievable timelines will be gone. If this happens, it will most likely cause delays upon delays and it will only lead to another disaster, one that will harm our children and the future of our country the most.
It doesn’t have to be like that. This should not be a battle between government and NGOs, but a collaboration of effort, expertise and resources. We are all responsible to our children in different yet equal ways.
The Kagiso Trust is a self-funded development organization with over 30 years of experience and impact in the basic education sector. We don’t have bottomless wallets, so deadlines force us to focus on projects, budget and work efficiently. We have had several meetings with the national DBE to discuss issues of infrastructure backlogs, improvement needs and collaborative investments, particularly with respect to the eradication of pit toilets. We have told the DBE that we are willing to partner at the national and provincial levels to ensure they meet their deadlines to eradicate pit latrines through crowdfunding initiatives to fund public sector projects and through l integration with the development and private sectors.
The step of the snail
Kagiso Trust has further committed to bringing funds to the table and working in conjunction with the DBE to meet its timelines for overall infrastructure improvements and basic service delivery. To date, our calls for collaboration have been answered at a snail’s pace and without definitive progress.
Yet, we have made significant progress in several provinces and district municipalities nationwide; the best example is the Free State, with which we have partnered in its journey to become the province with the most successful matriculation success rate in South Africa.
But we are most proud of building sustainable infrastructure. An example: the Kagiso Trust, in partnership with De Beers Mining and the Free State Department of Education, managed to put in the necessary funds to rebuild the primary school in Phuleng in the Free State and equipped it with a complete new structure with all the necessary basic school facilities as well as adequate sanitary facilities and drinking water.
The drive to delay the implementation of regulations should be unequivocally contested by the civil, private and development sectors as utterly baffling, hypocritical and predictably disastrous.
We ask: is this a management or a financial problem?
The education of our children has deadlines. Their lives have deadlines. These cannot be delayed. SM/MC
Themba Mola is the COO of Kagiso Trust. This article was first published in Beld July 20.