Principals vs Education Department: EC schools go to court #StoryBehindTheStory

7am in Flagstaff is cold in winter. The town, to use the term loosely, is in the middle of the Transkei and, because of the mountains it’s nestled in, gets brutally chilly at night and in the early hours of the morning. But it’s here that myself and photographer Thembinkosi Dwayisa sit in our car outside a dilapidated three-storey school building two weeks ago. We’re waiting for lawyers from the Legal Resource Centre to meet us for a story on school furniture shortages that plague large parts of the Eastern Cape.

They arrive, led by Cameron McConnachie, a few hours later, having already taken sworn affidavits from a principal at one of the affected schools. We go inside, but the leadership at this Flagstaff school are busy — it is exam-time, after all, but in truth they don’t seem too eager to make the time. We leave in convoy, our VW work car trailing their Toyota Hilux, and drive about 20km on a twisty narrow road to another school that has severe shortages of desks and chairs. The absolute basics are missing.

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The playground view from Redhill Junior Secondary School outside Flagstaff.

Redhill Junior Secondary School is perched on a hill with the most spectacular views. These are views that would not be out of place at any of the country’s top private schools. But inside the classrooms it’s nothing like a private school at all. Desks are broken and old, and chairs are breaking and some no longer have their backrests. And there aren’t even remotely enough desks for the children.

In court papers filed at the Mthatha High Court on Friday, July 4, principal MW Majita said there are 970 pupils at the school, but enough desks for just 500 of them. More than half his learners don’t even have their own desk. Three or four kids squish into desks for two. Some sit on bricks or stones in class. And, Majita says, because they sit so close together, fights are fairly commonplace.

Thembinkosi and I met with Majita. He was open and honest about the problems his school faced. He was desperate to have his kids get what they needed to learn properly. You couldn’t help but feel for his plight.

The Legal Resource Centre case (which also involves the Centre for Child Law) originally started in 2012. Then, two centres and three schools took the EC Education Department to court to demand that they, firstly, draw up a full audit of school furniture needs in the province and, secondly, that they provide that furniture to those schools. They won the case. While the three schools in the case were given furniture, the matter found itself back in the chambers of the Mthatha High Court, with the LRC and CCL saying that the audit wasn’t full and comprehensive. This time, four other schools joined the case. Again, the department was ordered to do the audit and provide the desks and chairs. A few court hearings later, and they were given a May 31, 2014, deadline. The four schools in the second application were given their furniture, but as the deadline approached the department filed papers asking for an extension. They said that budget constraints, legal challenges to already-awarded furniture tenders and the fact that the furniture procurement function was taken over by National Treasury meant they couldn’t meet it.

The LRC papers filed on Friday oppose the department’s application. Apart from Redhill Junior Secondary School, three other schools have joined the court case. So has one circuit school governing body which represents 14 schools. That’s 18 schools taking the department to court. That’s significant for a single court case.

McConnachie said he had seen a level of desperation from principals he hadn’t seen in the past. Even though they were taking their employers to court, they didn’t mind because of how dire their situations are.

I sent questions to the national education department. They were efficient and thorough, it must be said. Spokesman Elijah Mhlanga got back to me with their response, saying: “We are addressing the shortages of furniture. To date we have delivered to schools in Libode. We will deliver to more schools in the next few months. We have thus far procured school furniture to the tune of R60 million.”

Above that, he said National Treasury has issued a tender “to provide furniture to all schools in the Eastern Cape”.

“The tender closed on June 9 and it is being evaluated and will hopefully be award by end of July. The tender is meant to solve that problem of school furniture once and for all. In addition to this DBE is assisting all provinces to top up furniture where there is a need,” he said via email, adding that more than 158400 desks and 5300 chairs had already been delivered.

McConnachie admits that the department hasn’t done nothing, but believes that the court case will make more happen — and hopefully make them happen that little bit faster.

This is based on a story published in the Sunday Times on July 7, 2014, on page 14.

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