Asbestos in Gauteng schools: Public needs better information to hold education department accountable

Gauteng has failed to replace any of its asbestos schools, and the data it has made public about the school infrastructure backlogs in the province appears to be inconsistent and incomplete

20 June 2017 - 06:36
By LAURA GRANT (WORDS) | ALASTAIR OTTER (VISUALS)

This is part three of a three-part series about asbestos in Gauteng schools.

Part one maps where the schools built using asbestos are.

Part two looks at how safe Gauteng’s asbestos schools are.

Schools in South Africa are not equal. Some have excellent facilities; others have crowded classrooms, no libraries or science laboratories, and no sports fields. Some schools don’t even have running water, electricity, and toilets.

On November 29 2013, the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure were signed by the minister of education, Angie Motshekga.

“They are not perfect. But they are a tool with which to improve thousands of schools and change millions of lives,” said Equal Education, a non-governmental organisation that campaigned for for legally binding norms and standards.

The regulations required each of the nine provincial education departments to identify the schools that don’t meet the standards and provide detailed plans of how school infrastructure development will be implemented.

They also gave deadlines. For example, all schools made of inappropriate material – namely, mud, wood, metal or asbestos – were supposed to have been replaced by November 29 2016.

By December 2014 most of the provinces had submitted their project lists, which contain the names of schools and the infrastructure they lack, to the minister of education.

Gauteng identified 20 schools made entirely of asbestos that had to be replaced by the deadline at the time. But another 215 schools made partially of asbestos were identified to which the norms and standards deadlines didn’t apply.

Accountability

The norms and standards provide a way for ordinary people to hold government accountable for the state of the country’s public schools. 

The minister herself has stated that she wants the norms and standards reports to be publicly available. “It is in the best interest of the country that we make the reports available publicly to ensure that everybody can monitor the work that has been done and to also hold us accountable,” she said in a statement in November 2016.

“Education is a societal matter and we encourage everyone to interrogate the reports and make input.”

Ironically, according to Equal Education it took months of pressure before the infrastructure backlog lists and implementation plans were made public on the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) website in mid-2015.

The public still can’t interrogate Gauteng’s latest reports, because they have not been made public. The only project list that is publicly available is from 2015.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The GDE does, from time to time, release updated lists of the entirely asbestos schools, usually in response to parliamentary questions. The latest available list states there are 29 entirely/predominantly asbestos schools in the province, but whether this is the actual number of schools is unclear.

Four lists of entirely asbestos schools have been made public since June 2015, all of them slightly different. Altogether 34 schools have been listed as entirely asbestos, but only 15 schools have appeared on all four of the lists.

When asked why the list has changed so many times in the past two years, the GDE’s spokesperson, Oupa Bodibe, replied that 21 entirely asbestos schools were initially identified, “but the brief was later expanded to include schools built predominantly of asbestos”.

Bodibe didn’t give a definitive answer when asked if the latest list of 29 was the final/definitive list of entirely asbestos schools.

“It must be noted that some schools are a combination of fibre cement panels with asbestos roofs. To the naked eye the two look exactly the same and it requires technical expertise to provide final confirmation,” he said.

Incomplete lists

Without complete and reliable information the department’s ability to budget and plan for the replacement of the entirely asbestos schools in terms of the school infrastructure regulations is compromised.

This was a concern expressed by Khume Ramulifho, the Democratic Alliances’s “shadow education MEC” in Gauteng, in a recent telephone interview.

It is absolutely crucial that all school infrastructure documents are made public.
Equal Education spokesperson

He pointed out in a statement in October 2016 three more schools that should be added to the entirely asbestos list: Chloorkop Primary, Parkdale Primary and Noordgesig Secondary School.

“Given the health risks posed by asbestos, it is unacceptable that the department, which has had ample time to identify asbestos schools, still does not know how many schools need to be rebuilt,” said his statement.

Those are not the only schools that have been left off the list, said Ramulifho. “We just mentioned those three because we wanted to make the point that the list was incomplete.”

“Inconsistent and inaccurate data is certainly a problem across provincial education departments and the national basic education department, and the consequences are disastrous for learners and teachers,” said a spokesperson for Equal Education.

“It is absolutely crucial that all school infrastructure documents are made public. How else are government and implementing agents to be held to account? But also, with cases of data inaccuracies, to ensure that schools aren't skipped over in error.”

The shifting targets

Right from the start the GDE made it clear that it wasn’t going to meet the first deadline to replace the province’s entirely asbestos schools. In the MEC’s sign-off plan submitted to the minister in 2014, it stated that only three targets would be met within the stipulated time frames: “insufficient water, insufficient electricity, and fencing”.

According to the GDE’s 2014 implementation plan, “only six of the 20 [entirely asbestos] schools will be replaced/completed within the stipulated three-year time frame”, and these six schools would be completed in the 2016/17 financial year.

The 2016/17 financial year has come and gone and not one school has been completed.

Construction has begun at only one school and that is likely to be the only one finished in the 2017/18 financial year. The others are still at the design phase.

It is also not clear which schools the department intends to replace first.

In every financial year since 2014/2015, the schools' allocated budget for replacement seem to change.

The only school that has consistently received budget since 2014/15 is EW Hobbs Primary in Eldorado Park. It hasn’t been built yet.

“The list has changed because two of the schools that were initially identified as consisting entirely of asbestos have, after verification, found not to be asbestos schools. These schools are Eden Park Primary School and Eldorado Park Primary School.”

Eldorado Park Primary was not on the prioritised lists.

How does the department prioritise which schools to replace?

The GDE was asked whether the asbestos schools that have been identified in Gauteng were looked at by department of labour-registered asbestos inspectors, so the schools in the worst state of repair could be prioritised and replaced first.

Bodibe, said: “The department has its own building professionals who assess and prioritise school buildings.”

Eventually a school will be unfit for teaching, but that might be in 20 years.
Dr David Rees

The condition of the buildings is not the only factor the GDE takes into account, he said.

“Another aspect is the size of the existing school premises. If a school yard is big enough to erect the replacement buildings on the same site, such a school is prioritised above a school with a small site. 

“Where the site is small, an alternative accommodation must first be found where learners can be accommodated temporarily whilst the asbestos school is demolished and rebuilt and this preparatory work takes much longer.”

Tshwane Secondary School was removed from the replacement list “mainly because of the difficulties that will be encountered given the extremely small site on which the school is situated”, stated the GDE in its November 2016 progress report.

How much will it cost?

Replacing all the entirely asbestos schools will cost a lot of money, but it’s not entirely clear how much.

In the June 2015 project list between R70-million and R75-million was budgeted per school. In 2014/15 the GDE said it had earmarked R60-million for each of  six asbestos schools it planned to replace with “smart schools”. By the end of the 2016/2017 financial year the total estimated cost per school had increased slightly to within a range of R61,350,000 to R65,000,000.

But the estimated total cost of the only school to actually reach the construction phase, Everest Primary School, was R94,355,000 in the 2017/18 capital expenditure estimates released in March.

You can’t make it about head masters having to maintain their schools when it is the materials the schools are made of that is the problem.
Khume Ramulifho

“The original cost estimate for Everest Primary School was based on the average cost of constructing a new school,” said Bodibe.

“Only when the planning process is completed a more realistic cost estimate can be established. Thereafter the project goes to the market via an open tender process and the amounts of the tenders received will again differ from the cost estimate that was established during the planning phase,” he explained.

“The cost of replacing schools differs considerably from case to case,” he said.

Based on Everest Primary, it would cost about R2.7-billion for the GDE to replace the 29 entirely asbestos schools on its current list.

Then there are the 214 schools with asbestos classrooms. In the GDE’s 2015 project list, R405,000 was budgeted per “project”, and there were just more than 1,000 projects in total. So that’s an additional R400-million.

Replace versus maintain

Dr David Rees and Gabriel Mizan of the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) said that demolishing a school should be a last resort and that there should rather be a systematic plan for dealing with the asbestos schools rather than simply rushing to replace all of them in a short space of time.

“Eventually a school will be unfit for teaching, but that might be in 20 years,” said Dr Rees.

There are more pressing social issues this money could be spent on in the short term, he said.

The NIOH experts’ views are in line with policy in the United Kingdom and United States, which recommend that as long as asbestos-containing materials are in good condition it is safest to manage them in situ because removal or demolition increases the risk that asbestos fibres are released in to the air.

For this to work, schools do need to have an effective asbestos management plan, however, to ensure that the structures that contain asbestos are not disturbed or damaged.

Ramulifho agreed with Rees and Mizan on the need for a systematic plan to replace the asbestos schools rather than what he described as the “uncoordinated” way the department has tackled the problem so far.

But he did not agree that it would be better to prioritise maintenance rather than rebuilding, despite the current budget constraints.

“They have to go,” said Ramulifho. “You can’t make it about head masters having to maintain their schools when it is the materials the schools are made of that is the problem.”

Bodibe, the GDE’s spokesperson, described the delivery of adequate infrastructure as a “mammoth task”.

Without referring to the GDE’s failure to replace even one asbestos school by the 2016 deadline, Bodibe said that significant progess had been made in replacing dilapidated structures and building completely new schools.

“But the department is faced with a number of problems including overcrowding due to an annual increase in learner enrolment, insufficient funds for infrastructure delivery and lack of delivery capacity,” he said.

The department needs to plan properly, said Ramilifho. And to do that they must know how many asbestos schools there are. 

“They need to decide how many schools they are going to replace this year, and next year and the next, and prioritise how much money they need to do that until all those schools are replaced,” he said.

Is your school on the asbestos list?

Click below to use our searchable list to see which schools have been identified as entirely asbestos and which are partially asbestos. 

South Africa
Does your school contain asbestos?
3 months ago

This series was produced by the Media Hack Collective with funding from the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Fund at Wits University.