After soliciting feedback from hundreds of South African students and parents, Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) have submitted comments on the South African Minister of Basic Education’s second draft of minimum regulations for public school infrastructure. While the submission recognizes that the Minister’s draft represents important progress, EE and EELC raise significant concerns with respect to the draft’s long timeline for implementation. As Moto Singulakka, a Grade 10 learner at Oscar Mpetha High School in the Western Cape, asked, “What about now? Where are the learners going to learn?”

A child stands in a school room in South Africa. The room is bare, with scaffolding exposed and wood paneling falling apart behind him.
Photo courtesy of Equal Education Law Centre

The legacy of Apartheid is still palpable in South Africa’s education system, where many rural and township schools lack basic infrastructure to provide students with a safe environment conducive to learning. Binding norms and standards will help promote equality in education for South Africa’s historically disadvantaged students by requiring all public schools to meet minimum thresholds in relation to physical facilities.

Recognizing that adequate norms and standards are desperately needed, EE has been campaigning for over three years for the development, release, and improvement of these norms. We at the International Human Rights Clinic have for the past year provided legal support to this campaign, which is based on student concerns about a range of infrastructure challenges, including overcrowded and collapsing classrooms, unsanitary toilets that make students sick, inadequate water supply, insufficient electricity, and a painful dearth of science labs, libraries, computer access, and sports fields. Mbali Cezula, a student from iQonce High School in the Eastern Cape, explained that there is a “lack of proper classrooms in my school. There are few buildings [and] some look like township slums. They are not safe as they could fall anytime.”

The regulations for school infrastructure are long overdue. A 2007 amendment to the South African Schools Act of 1996 empowered the Minister to implement binding norms and standards for public school infrastructure. However, such regulations were never released, despite the department’s 2010 proclamation that “[e]quity in the provision of an enabling physical teaching and learning environment is therefore a constitutional right and not just a desirable state.” After a sustained public advocacy effort, EE, assisted by the Legal Resources Centre, filed suit to compel the Minister to act. A year ago, in November 2012, Minister Angie Motshekga agreed to settle the case and to release norms as part of the settlement. Her first set of draft regulations, made available for public comment in January 2013, were “disappointingly vague on substance.”

Heeding feedback from EE and numerous other NGOs, the Minister’s September 2013 draft reflects some progress. The Minister provides more detail and specifics—for instance, capping the maximum number of students per classroom and requiring that schools have a minimum number of toilets, within a range, per student. Unlike the January draft, the September version contains two deadlines for implementation, 2023 and 2030, linked to specific infrastructure categories.

However, many learners continue to express concerns related to issues of implementation, fearing that the proposed timelines do not reflect the immediate imperative to remedy unacceptable learning conditions in their schools. A student from Sizwe Senior Secondary School explained, “procrastination is the thief of time, if the minister keeps on proposing too much time she will end up not provid[ing] any of the things she listed on the draft . . . she is supposed to provide the urgent resource to the needy schools first.”

Pamela Mbhele, a Grade 10 learner at Maceba Secondary School, felt that “2030 is too far for us to survive without laboratories, libraries and insufficient toilets.” Other shortcomings of the latest draft norms and standards include the decision not to classify schools by need and the absence of benchmarks for measuring progress along the way.

The court has mandated that the Minister release the final binding regulations at the end of this month. We hope that the Minister takes these learners’ remaining concerns into account as she finalizes the regulations. The current state of school infrastructure is unacceptable. It limits the potential of South Africa’s most disadvantaged students, and perpetuates historical inequities.

Melissa Shube is a student in the International Human Rights Clinic who spent this semester working on education-related issues in South Africa, under the supervision of Clinical Director Susan Farbstein and in partnership with EELC.