When President Jacob Zuma handed over the first of 49 schools built through the Accelerated School Infrastructure Development Initiative (ASIDI) in the Eastern Cape last month, he signalled government's broadest step yet towards the eradication of mud schools in the country.
As SAnews reporter Chris Bathembu writes, ASIDI is probably the most ambitious programme that promises to change the face of school infrastructure in South Africa. It's also the first programme of its kind to bring together government and private financial institutions in a deal that aims to eradicate all mud schools and inappropriate structures by 2015.
With a budget of more than R8.2 billion in the next three years, officials say the programme would eradicate and replace 496 mud schools, provide water and sanitation to 1257 schools and electricity to 878 schools. The department of Basic Education acknowledges however that out of the R1 billion committed for 2011/12, only R59 million was spent and R900 million was rolled over to 2012/13. The Department had planned to get rid of 50 of these schools, electrify 164, supply water to 188 and deliver sanitation infrastructure to 354 during the 2011/12 financial year.
While construction of 49 schools in the Eastern Cape was progressing well, only four had been completed. Reasons cited for the delays included inclement weather, difficult terrain, procurement problems and non-performing implementing agents. Through ASIDI, government plans to spend R5.6bn in the Eastern Cape alone.
Once completed, each school would have an administration block, a nutrition tuck shop, a resource centre that included a multipurpose classroom, a multimedia centre with a library and ICT facilities, a science laboratory and several classrooms.
In the Eastern Cape, where the challenge is particularly acute with over 395 mud schools still in existence, the benefits are endless. The problem with such structures is a serious dropout rate that school authorities say is evident particularly during winter periods where learners simply stay away from these schools.
This is also evident in the fact that at Mphathiswa Senior Primary, one of the new schools SAnews visited this week, enrolment for next year has already increased by more than 50 per cent following a dramatic drop in recent years. Principal Pathiwe Mvelembo says the school had been inundated with applications from prospective learners since President Zuma officially unveiled the new school in October. Situated in the dusty district of Libode, about 25 kilometres from Mthatha, locals say lack of resources had forced learners to take classes in mud structures and under the trees for many years.
The new Mpathiswa school building boasts up to 10 modern classrooms, a computer lab, science lab, a kitchen, dedicated children's play area as well as a spacious administration building that also hosts the principal's office. It's a giant leap compared to the rundown three-roomed mud structure teachers used since moving from a nearby church building more than 10 years ago.
"In the past we lost many learners because they ran away to other schools but now that we have a new school the numbers will rise again. Even the community is helping us a lot and we are confident that learners will flock to our new school in numbers we are already seeing through the applications that we are receiving," says Mvelembo.
Last year alone, the school lost more than 100 learners who decided to enrol in better schools found in other districts. But despite the challenging conditions, Mphatiswa had been one of the best performing schools in the area. It also used to be among the best performers in sports like soccer and netball. The principal hopes that with the facilities offered by the new structure, the school would return to its glory days.
"We feel right now things are going to change. We are very fortunate because now that we have a new structure, learners are going to gather in big numbers here because we are going to meet the needs of today particularly with technology," she says.
It's a sentiment shared across the province where ASIDI schools are being introduced.
"We are very much happy with the new structures because they are permanent. Mud structures were making conditions very bad especially this is a rural school and our financial position as a community would not allow us to build a new school for our children," said Roney Nombanga, Principal at Tabata Senior Primary School, another ASIDI school.
Both schools have received 27 lap tops each for their computer labs where learners are expected to be trained on basic computer skills. This is expected to be rolled out to another 45 schools under construction.
Nombanga said for years most children in the Lusikisiki area had to either relocate to stay with relatives in nearby Mthatha to access better schools or stay away from school when it became impossible to learn due to weather conditions.
According to records provided to SAnews by the provincial education department, there were 939 mud structure schools in the Eastern Cape in 2003/04. This was whittled down to 436 schools by 2008/09, and subsequently to 395 schools by the start of the ASIDI programme, which identified the need for just over 3 000 classrooms.
The department's spokesperson, Malibongwe Mtima, says the replacement of mud and other unsafe structures represents a major challenge to the department and the province.
"These schools are by and large small schools in remote areas with declining populations. Thus whilst they remain the principle focus for interventions there is an increasing demand for learning space in the peri-urban areas, accompanied by an ever growing need for maintenance at the larger schools in the more populated areas where the infrastructure is under stress due to the large number of learners on the premises".
He says there are numerous challenges facing the provision of proper infrastructure at Eastern Cape schools. The greatest of these is the availability of adequate funding.
"The next budgetary challenge is sufficient funding to maintain the existing infrastructure. Industry norms indicate that approximately 2% of a building's replacement cost should be budgeted annually for its maintenance. This would mean that the department should be spending in excess of R1bn annually on maintenance of its fixed assets, which would consume the entire infrastructure budget at current funding levels," says Mtima.
He admits that there are many other challenges, a major one being capacity - at a number of levels. This applies to the department's internal infrastructure unit to the department of Roads & Public Works, other implementing agents as well as the building industry at large.
"There are also many physical challenges. The topography of the province, the large number of rural schools and the remote location thereof make condition assessments and interventions at schools difficult. The regular extreme weather conditions, such as tornadoes, also result in widespread disasters which need to be addressed, thereby further delaying planned interventions."
Mtima says the department has also pro-actively pursued donor funding to supplement its own interventions. These include major foreign government donors such as the European Union and the Japanese government, as well as large national and multi-national firms. "Many other donor organisations have also generously assisted the department in its efforts to address its infrastructure backlogs in the province."
A school infrastructure report by the national department of education also points to an improving school infrastructure situation.
Out of 24 793 schools, about 21 249 had electricity supply, 22391 had water supply, 23 522 had fencing that included wire, palisade or brick. More than 5252 schools had libraries, 3 772 had laboratories while 5756 had a computer centre and only 17% of schools had sports facilities.