Home Opinion and Features School uniform costs raise questions of supplier corruption

School uniform costs raise questions of supplier corruption

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Parents who are forced to buy uniforms from selected suppliers appointed by schools have been joined by political parties and others in calling on the Competition Commission and the government to step in and regulate what has been an issue for years now.

Six-year-old Rahma Cassie tries on her new school uniform. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

WITH only a few days left before the official start of the South African school calendar, the matter of the pricing of school uniforms has again become a hot topic, with stakeholders asking why it has been allowed to drag on for so long.

Parents, who are forced to buy uniforms from selected suppliers appointed by schools, have been joined by political parties, individuals and others in calling on the Competition Commission and the government to step in and regulate what has been an issue for years now.

Every year at the start of the academic year, the issue around the exorbitant cost of uniforms comes up. Many schools, both public and private, inform parents of preferred suppliers from where they should buy school uniforms or direct them to buy only at their own uniform shops.

The prices are known to be too high, no matter the colour or quality, and, said one parent, it is normally a small badge sewn on or an emblem emblazoned on a shirt that makes the difference between buying from a mass supplier and a preferred provider.

With her child enrolling for Grade 1, one SA mother, Martha Ndlangisa, said the shock of having to buy a pair of socks for R70 threw her mind into a spin.

“And remember, she cannot have one, two or even three pairs, because that would mean washing them every day after school and hoping they dry in time for her to wear them.

“For each day she goes to school she is worth more than her monthly transport. She wears a pair of expensive socks, a shirt bought for R120, her pleated skirt cost us R220, and the pullover R300, we have not bought jerseys yet.

“The only item we could buy at the mall was her shoes, and because you cannot buy cheap shoes for a child as they play all day and get them wet if it is raining, we spent a small fortune kitting her for Grade 1.”

The school gave them the address of the supplier last year, who, when opened for business on January 8, had a queue of worried parents asking each other what they were buying. Nothing was “reasonably priced”, she said, as there were still sports clothes and tracksuits to be bought.

Joining the chorus of the concerned was the Inkatha Freedom Party. They party said it was time to break the cycle of schools entering into evergreen contracts with suppliers and of uniforms sold exclusively at schools.

Said spokesperson Thembeni Madlopha-Mthethwa: “South African school uniform monopolies are cause for concern to us as the IFP and we believe that corruption is involved in this matter. We are against evergreen contracts between schools and particular suppliers and would prefer for parents to buy according to their budget.”

She called for suppliers to tender for the supply of uniforms in a transparent manner, saying the existing policy used by many schools was anti-competitive and a barrier to new service providers coming into the marketplace.

“What is happening is against the school uniform guidelines issued by the National Department of Basic Education in 2015. The National Guideline on School Uniforms was meant to discourage the use of a single supplier approach, because it adds to parents’ financial burden. In spite of the guidelines, many schools still have exclusive contracts with one or two suppliers.”

The 2006 guidelines remained an important social and educational objective, which outlined that the lack of availability of uniform could not restrict access to schools or interfere with anybody’s constitutional rights, Madlopha-Mthethwa said.

Many people depended on social grants and school uniform prices cost more than that. “This results in too many children going to school without shoes because their parents can only manage to buy a few items for them. It also results in many children not going to school because they do not have school uniforms.”

The Competition Commission said it acknowledged that it had again received hundreds of complaints from parents over the high price of school uniforms, saying the National Association of School Governing Bodies had also called for schools to buy their children’s school uniforms wherever they could afford them.

Spokesperson Matakanye Matakanye said uniforms must not be exclusively bought from one shop. “We are against evergreen contracts between schools and particular suppliers, we call for the need for parents to buy according to their budget.”

Principal analyst in the Advocacy Department at the Competition Commission, Betty Mkatshwa, said every year they were inundated with calls from parents about this issue, and it has been ongoing for some time.

“When schools have an exclusive arrangement with one supplier, this allows the supplier to change the quality and price of products without having to worry about competing,” she said.

Legal officer at the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, Juané van der Merwe, said it was not necessary to have so many unique and branded uniform pieces, as this was contributing to the lack of competition. “It should be investigated whether young children really need to wear blazers, which is usually the most expensive piece of the uniform.”

In 2021, the Competition Commission agreed that schools should abandon exclusivity with uniform suppliers, with Karabo Mataung saying they were clear that no specific targeting of schools would take place and schools should not think that if they continued with this behaviour, they would not face prosecution.

Having taken three children through public schools over the past 14 years, parent Andile Ncube said she had experienced situations and various meetings and resolutions which had failed to resolve the matter.

“We would meet and agree to a uniform approach attiring our children, but every year it never happened. Parents with expertise in accounting, in sewing, supplying, tried to reason with the schools my children went to, but we never got the relief we knew we deserved.”

She said government officials were also involved in supplier contracts, and this was why no one, not even the Competition Commission could intervene successfully.

“One longs for the apartheid-era uniform of black gym dresses, white shirts and socks for girls … it was a painful time, yes, but no school could appear exclusive, no supplier went under the table to charge exorbitant amounts for material dipped in colour, with a badge slapped on and the chance to create the illusion of exclusivity,” the mother said.

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