THE BIG READ: Decade of mud-slinging
Angie Motshekga is in an ebullient mood. Last Tuesday, at parliament, she told the media that South African education is on an upward trajectory, characterised by focus, consistency and clarity.
Fine. Nothing wrong with a bit of positive thinking. But she made an impossibly bold claim about one of her most important challenges: "By 2015," she said, "in terms of mud schools, we should be done."
She claimed that last year her department had replaced 50 of the Eastern Cape's mud schools.
"This financial year, we plan to repair another 200."
A few hours later, Jeremy Maggs' Twitter account told us - a hint of annoyance puncturing his usual sanguinity - that the minister (of basic education) had cancelled her News Night interview.
It seems she did not want to be cross-examined on these claims.
Since Motshekga took office, Equal Education has never questioned her integrity. But on mud schools she cannot be believed.
For at least a decade our political leaders have been lying to us about mud schools.
In 2004, President Thabo Mbeki said: "By the end of this year we shall ensure that there is no pupil learning under a tree, mud school or any dangerous conditions that expose pupils and teachers to the elements."
Two years later, in 2006, the MEC for education in the Eastern Cape Mkhangeli Matomela announced: "I am confident we will eradicate mud schools in the next two financial years."
His successor Johnny Makgato said in 2007: "Mud schools will be a forgotten relic by the end of 2009."
In parliament that same year, then minister of education Naledi Pandor was only slightly less optimistic, forecasting that "50% of the mud schools will be rebuilt between 2007 and 2009".
Makgato's replacement in the Eastern Cape, Mahlubandile Qwase, declared in 2008: "It is my plan that the eradication of mud schools must be fast-tracked in the 2010/11 financial year."
In 2010 Eastern Cape Premier, Noxolo Kiviet assured us: "The programme aimed at eliminating mud structures in the province is progressing well."
Two years ago, in 2011, Motshekga was confident that "by 2014 we will have eradicated all mud schools in the province".
And yet, as of now, there remain at least 486 "inappropriate structures" of which 442 are mud schools, in the Eastern Cape.
The department's programme to replace them with proper schools is called the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative.
It was created only because a court settlement forced action.
In 2010, represented by the Legal Resources Centre, seven mud schools in the Libode region of the Eastern Cape sued the department. The historic settlement of R8.2-billion created the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative.
The first 49 schools were scheduled to be complete by the end of March 2012. By this month, a total of 98 schools were to have been handed over. The latest parliamentary report suggests that four schools are complete and that 10 have reached "practical completion". Just two schools have been handed over: Mphathiswa Senior Primary in Libode and Dakhile Junior Secondary School in Lusikisiki.
In the 2011/2012 financial year, only R76-million of the allocated R700-million was spent. At the end of the third quarter of the 2012/2013 financial year just R476-million of the R2.3-billion allocated has been spent. This is the really bad kind of under-spending, with dire consequences for children.
The Medium Term Budget Statement of October 2012 conveyed this chillingly: "As a result of slow spending on the schools infrastructure backlogs grant, R7.2-billion has been taken away from this programme over the medium term.
"These funds will be used to increase the education infrastructure grant to provinces and the community library grant, and to support the construction of new universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape."
Subsequent to this, the Department of Basic Education spent a considerable amount of public money to advertise their mud schools efforts, and claim, falsely, an unaltered budget allocation.
This was followed by an absurd departmental statement insisting that talk of any funds being taken away was a "fabrication".
However, the reallocation was promptly confirmed by Treasury.
In last week's Budget speech Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan rebuked those departments that "struggle to spend their full infrastructure budgets", saying "money has been taken away from programmes that are not performing - and given to programmes that are delivering as planned".
At least a recent parliament report suggests that R2.5-billion was not entirely lost, but rescheduled to later years.
The department is certainly trying. Approximately 100 schools have received temporary pre-fabricated classrooms, but not toilets and fencing. The much smaller number of schools that have been built, or partly built, are an immense improvement. They offer not only dignity, but the possibility of teaching and learning. Even while the lack of Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure continues to make it impossible to plan, budget and organise the task - not to mention spend the money - a small group of people are gradually replacing mud schools with schools.
But the fabrication continues. President Jacob Zuma joined the tradition of mud school make-believe when he said in his recent State of the Nation speech that "a total of 98 new schools will have been built by the end of March, of which more than 40 are in the Eastern Cape that are replacing mud schools". This, too, will not come to pass.
There is something especially wicked about making false promises to children. When this is done publicly, the one making the promise assumes the role of hero to the country's children. It must be an appealing feeling and a tempting pretence for a politician.
Children are usually helpless in the face of such promises. They have little recourse.
At least now the network of Equal Education members across the Eastern Cape are involved in collecting and transferring information about their schools, information which means that promises will no longer pacify, but become instruments of political accountability.
Isaacs is deputy general secretary of Equal Education