Schools in Swaziland/eSwatini face chaos and confusion as the new academic year starts. Teachers are to strike, the government cannot afford to finance education and many pupils face exclusion because they do not have official identity documents.
Schools were due to return on Tuesday (22 January 2019) but this was in doubt following an announcement from the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) that a series of union meetings would take place across the kingdom during the week. SNAT will also be joining a national strike of public service workers due for 28 January 2019.
They are in a long-running dispute with government over cost of living wage adjustments. Unions have asked for 6.5 percent but the government says it is broke and has offered zero percent.
Meanwhile, it is doubtful that the government can afford to pay schools the fees they need so they can operate. Government needs to find E151.9 million for the primary schools across the kingdom to fund free primary education (FPE). There are about 650 primary schools in Swaziland. The Swazi Constitution requires that all children in the kingdom receive free primary education. For eight years until last year the European Union had paid about E140 million a year toward the cost of FPE.
Initially, the EU said it would fund FPE for all primary school pupils until 2016. After the initial period elapsed the financial support was extended until the end of 2018.
There are about 330,000 pupils at school in Swaziland, including about 240,000 at primary schools. The government pays a minimum of E560 per pupil for primary pupils.
Minister of Education and Training Lady Mabuza told the Times of Swaziland government did not yet have a plan to pay fees in the absence of the EU sponsorship.
'We've not engaged on the issue much but the EU stated that they were withdrawing last year and government has to take over,' Mabuza said.
At the end of last year the Ministry of Education and Training had to pay more than E40 million to cover the cost of sending police and prison wardens into schools to invigilate examinations while teachers were in dispute.
Meanwhile, many children will not be able to attend school because they do not have the correct documentation. Head teachers in many primary schools say they will not accept pupils who do not have Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) issued by the government.
Last year the government refused to fund pupils who did not hold PINs. The Ministry said to avoid audit queries it had to pay fees against a PIN not a name of a pupil.
There are also reports that schools will not receive much needed materials such as stationery because suppliers have not been paid. At primary school each child needs at least 14 exercise books and seven text books. One supplier located in Manzini told the Times of Swaziland his company was owed E300,000.
It is not clear whether the government has paid food suppliers. In the past two years children who relied on government food aid - known as the zondle programme - had gone hungry when bills were left unpaid.
The problems at schools do not end at primary level. An investigation by the Swazi Observer in January last year revealed that some high schools charged nearly E9,000 per child per year in top-up fees. It also found that some schools were not allowing children, including OVCs (orphaned and vulnerable children) to attend classes until deposits on fees were paid.
The Ministry of Education then announced that no school in Swaziland had been given permission to charge top-up fees because none had made the necessary formal request to do so. Permission can take up to a year.
Also last year children were turned away because there were no spaces for them in classes at High School. This was because the kingdom had in recent years introduced FPE and children had graduated and there were not enough places for them in secondary schools. Parents were reported by local media to be walking from school to school in unsuccessful attempts to get their children placed.