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Victory for poor schools

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Schools in rural areas are no doubt a lamentable manifestation of what the former president was highlighting

Picture: MATTHEW JORDAAN, INLSA

It was Thabo Mbeki who pointed out that South Africa was a country of two nations. One was relatively prosperous and white; the other, prominently black and poor.

He said the worst affected of poor sections were women in grossly underdeveloped rural areas, the black rural population in general and people with disabilities.

Schools in rural areas are no doubt a lamentable manifestation of what the former president was highlighting.

In May 2011, an audit conducted by the Department of Basic Education told a tale of woe: more than 3500 schools in South Africa still did not have access to electricity, 900 did not have sanitation facilities and 2400 were without water.

The Legal Resources Centre, acting on behalf of Equal Education and two public schools in the Eastern Cape, launched a court application in March 2012 seeking a ruling to order the Minister of Basic Education to set minimum norms and standards to regulate school conditions throughout the country.

After many rounds of litigation, on November 29, 2013, a set of regulations – the Regulations Relating to Minimum Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure – was made law. Its aims were to ensure that each pupil was guaranteed to be educated in a safe environment, with access to electricity, sanitation and clean water.

This step was a breakthrough in advancing the right to basic education and ensuring that children are safe at school.

Mud schools and those made of other materials such as metal, wood and asbestos, as well as those without access to electricity, water and sanitation, were to be prioritised and eradicated by November 30, 2016.

The department failed to meet the deadline, citing constraints of resources and that it was hamstrung by other state organs such as Eskom and the Public Works Department. Equal Education and Section27 argued that this was tantamount to an escape clause for the department to avoid its constitutional obligations to provide safe and adequate school infrastructure.

Last week, Judge Nomawabo Msizi in the Bhisho High Court affirmed that the government has an unequivocal obligation to provide safe and adequate school infrastructure as a component of the right to basic education in terms of section 29(1)(a) of the constitution. The court also ruled that any failure to meet the obligation must be justified in full by the government.

The court ruling is to be applauded. It serves as a victory to all marginalised pupils and disadvantaged schools, like the 37 schools that still do not have any form of sanitation today.