South Africa has a dire shortage of new schools, yet the Department of Basic Education has slashed its infrastructure grant to provinces by more than R657-million over the next three years.
That amount could have built 25 medium-size schools or 2348 additional classrooms, according to the department's own figures.
The cutback is revealed in the department's annual performance plan, released this month.
Gauteng needs at least 200 new schools, while Mpumalanga said it would take up to 20 years with the new allocation for the province to get all of its schools up to an acceptable standard .
Paddy Padayachee, the department's deputy director-general for planning, information and assessment, said the spending cut, which was approved by the cabinet, was part of the government's cost-saving and containment measures.
He said effect of the cut was partly offset by an extra disaster relief grant of R278-million over the next three financial years for the repair of "schools damaged by storms".
All nine provinces will collectively receive R180.2-million less this year than was initially promised for infrastructure spending, R168-million less in 2013/14 and R309.3-million less in 2014/15. The department has an annual infrastructure grant budget of about R6-billion.
Other grant allocations affected by cuts include:
- The Dinaledi schools (specialised maths and science schools), whose budget was reduced by R1.2-million; and
- The school nutrition programme, which was cut by R78.9-million.
This comes as pupils are still learning under trees, as is the case at Mwezeni Senior Primary School in the Eastern Cape. The school, in Elliotdale, about 70km from Mthatha, consists of three dilapidated huts. Many of the children are taught under trees in the veld and sent home when it rains.
Even in the school's two crumbling, bare, mud-hut classrooms, pupils sit on the sun-baked mud floor.
A third hut on the premises serves as an administration office for the five teachers and principal. Principal Thembalakhe Vinqishe said: "The department doesn't care about us. I don't think there is a will to assist us."
Maths teacher Buyelwa Zandile, who has been at the school for 15 years, said: "It's difficult to teach here ... but we're trying our level best under these circumstances ... what can we do?"
The cutbacks also come in the wake of a court bid by advocacy group Equal Education (EE) to compel Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to prescribe minimum standards for school buildings.
The EEaffidavit, lodged in the High Court in Bisho in the Eastern Cape, includes affidavits from 24 schools about the appalling conditions under which pupils are taught.
This week, the EE said millions of pupils and teachers were tired of the poor infrastructure at their schools, with some not even having a single toilet.
Growing anger over shoddy schools follows repeated government promises spanning years. Former president Thabo Mbeki told parliament in 2004 that, by March of the following year, there would be no pupil "learning under a tree, mud school or any dangerous conditions".
He also expected all schools to have access to clean water and sanitation, yet today there are still 395 mud schools in the Eastern Cape and 230 "unsafe structures", including prefabricated buildings, in Mpu-malanga. In May last year a total of 3544 schools in South Africa still did not have electricity, 2401 had no water and 913 no ablution facilities.
Mike Myburgh, chief executive of the Gauteng branch of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of SA, slammed the cutbacks as " totally unacceptable".
He said: "The only thing that could justify this is if they are on target with building new schools. But we know they are not."
Last week, residents of Grabouw in the Western Cape burnt down the Umyezo wama Apile School following demands for additional facilities and an end to overcrowding.
And the week before, 14 high school pupils in one of the Eastern Cape's most remote villages, Ndibela, near Dutywa, were charged with public violence and malicious damage to property after they burnt down their eight dilapidated and prefabricated classrooms, the principal's make-shift office and six water tanks.
It emerged in court that, for more than seven years, teachers and pupils at the school had pleaded with the provincial Education Department to build them a proper school.