At 9am on 31 October 2022, Grade 12 learners in South Africa will commence with their (NSC) examinations. The English Paper 1 will be the same for the learners regardless of their examination venue.
However, learners faced different challenges before entering their examination venue and were subjected to different school environments.
Under Apartheid, schools in South Africa were segregated and received a varying allocation of resources. Schools serving learners of colour received less funding than those serving white students. The impact of this inequality is still being felt by learners today as they navigate poor school infrastructure.
In 2013, an important step was taken to ensure that all schools in South Africa operated in safe and proper environments that are conducive to learning when Section 5A of the South African Schools Act was signed into law.
The Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure (Norms and Standards) set out that all schools must have water, electricity, working toilets, access to the internet and safe classrooms. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) was responsible for delivering this to schools and had deadlines to complete this.
Progress was made in delivering water, electricity and decent toilets to schools since the act was introduced. However, there are still hundreds of schools waiting on critical infrastructure.
The National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) is a system used to track the state of school infrastructure by the DBE.
The 2021 edition NEIMS report indicated that
- 90 schools in the country, all located in the Eastern Cape, did not have an electricity supply. The report noted that electricity projects at those 90 schools are at different stages of implementation.
- 5167 schools still use pit latrines/pit toilets
- 69.59% of schools did not have a library (Library reports excluded schools with access to community, mobile, cluster and classroom libraries)
- 58.16% of schools did not have a computer centre
In June 2022, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga published a government gazette inviting members of the public to comment on proposed amendments to the regulations relating to Minimum Norms and Standards.
This gave the public 30 days to provide input to the DBE on the proposed amendments. However, the comments period fell during the school holidays. The DBE then extended that comment period a further 30 days after public outcry.
Had the DBE not extended the comment period, there would have been a very real risk that the voices of those that would be most affected by the amendments to the Norms and Standards would have been excluded
These were the words of Tarryn Cooper-Bell, a Senior Attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC).
They explained that in addition to the timing of the comment period, the amendments were only published in English. This severely limited the ability of those most affected by these proposed amendments to engage and comment substantively on them.
After considering the public comments, the DBE may have a slightly revised document which they would then consult on with the provincial Members of the Executive Council (MEC)s and Heads of Department (HOD).
Cooper-Bell says that Members of the public should be very concerned with the proposed amendments. These amendments will have consequences on how and when schools are provided with vital infrastructure.
The government's continued austerity measures in respect of education continue to be of great concern to us.
“The amendments will also affect how the government can and should be held accountable for school infrastructure provisioning. The proposed amendments (if they are not changed to incorporate the submissions which EELC and EE have made) will result in further delays to infrastructure provision meaning many schools across South Africa will continue to sit without basic services such as water, electricity, and infrastructure for many years” explained Cooper-Bell.
If the new amendments are adopted, provincial education departments provide progress reports concerning the deliverance of school infrastructure.
These reports could be extremely important to ensure transparency and accountability. It will also enable civil society to monitor governments' compliance and or lack of compliance with their obligations as contained in the norms.
However, the proposed amendments remove all reporting guidance currently contained in the Norms and Standards.
Cooper-Bell says this will have a detrimental impact on the quality of reporting we will receive from the provinces, which in effect will prejudice the ability to hold provinces to account for infrastructure delivery.
In an interview Chief Director of Communications & Media at the DBE, Elijah Mhlanga explained that the financial climate of the past few years hindered the department's ability to deliver appropriate infrastructure to schools.
In addition to this, lack of funding is an unacceptable excuse when the lives of children who are forced to use plain pit latrines daily are in danger.
Cooper-Bell acknowledged this may be the case but labelled it as a weak excuse. This as the right to basic education is enshrined in South Africa’s constitution and financial constraints can never be an excuse for the DBE’s failure to deliver something as important as basic infrastructure.
Groups like Equal Education, EELC and others made submissions to the DBE which will be considered by the department.
However, time will tell if these submissions are taken onboard and who is responsible for delivering safe school infrastructure to South Africa's children.