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How South Africa’s department of basic education is misleading the public

The department of basic education claims to be replacing a “mud school” a week in South Africa’s impoverished Eastern Cape province. At face value, it would seem to be an impressive accomplishment. But as Africa Check discovered, the claims involve a heavy dose of spin.

Researched by Kate Wilkinson

This report has been updated to reflect comments made by the department of basic education in a press release issued on 10 October 2013.

South Africa’s department of basic education is in the middle of a highly publicised campaign to open “one school a week”. An official schedule lists 19 schools in the country’s Eastern Cape province which the department has said “will be handed-over” by November.

But is the department “delivering” a new school a week? Africa Check set out to investigate.

The 19 schools form part of a batch of 49 mud schools which were meant to have been replaced by the end of the 2011/12 financial year as part government’s “accelerated schools infrastructure delivery initiative”. The delivery dates were later revised. In his State of the Nation address early this year, President Jacob Zuma promised that the schools would be completed by the end of March. It was a promise that was soon broken. (See our earlier report)

The “one school a week” campaign has been widely promoted. Ministers, deputy ministers and members of provincial government executive councils have lined up to open schools in the Eastern Cape. The department started a Facebook page for the initiative and has tweeted about it. A photo gallery of the new schools was published by Times LIVE.

The language of delivery

The department has called the “one school a week” campaign an “infrastructure roll-out” and the schools have variously been described as “opened”, “handed-over” or “officially handed-over”.

Last month, the department reported on its progress to Parliament’s standing committee on appropriations. Enver Surty, the deputy minister for basic education, made several claims about the initiative. “We are already on a programme…of delivering a school per week. And so far we have been delivering more than a school per week, but we say a school per week.

“This week Friday, for example, I will be going to Libode to deliver a school and the week after and the week after and the week after…”

Surty invited the committee to hold him accountable if this did not happen, saying: “We can celebrate chairperson and I’m putting this to the committee…You can call me to say, ‘Why did you mislead me?’ if it doesn’t happen. We are delivering a school per week.”

Although the department initially claimed that they would “open” one school per week from July, they got off to a rocky start. The schedule shows that they only “handed-over” two schools that month.

But when exactly did all the schools open their doors?

What the schools say

Africa Check attempted to contact the 19 schools listed in the schedule. The dates they gave for their openings differed markedly from the official “hand-over” dates provided by the department:

  • Ndlovayiphathwa Senior Primary School in Libode – The department’s schedule states that the school was handed-over on 19 July this year. However, the principal told Africa Check that they had been using the new school since the end of May.
  • Kwenxura Senior Primary School in Mthatha – While the department stated that the school was handed-over on 8 August this year, the principal says that it has been open since “February or March”.
  • Kwezilethu Senior Primary School in Mount Frere – An Eastern Cape basic education department statement, which described the event as “another..success story”, claimed that the school was “handed-over to the community of Xongora village outside Mthatha by the department” on 15 August this year. However, the school’s principal says the school opened in January.  
  • Mqokolweni Senior Primary School in Libode – According to a statement, Surty was due to “open the newly built” school on 23 August.  But the school’s principal told Africa Check that the school opened its doors on 16 January this year.
  • Notsolo Senior Primary School in Libode – A basic education department statement claimed that Notsolo joins “the list of brand new schools that have been opened as part of the ‘[one] school a week campaign’ which began at the beginning of July 2013”.  However, the principal told Africa Check that the school had opened “at the end of 2012, but I don’t know the exact day”. 
  • Sizane Junior School in Libode – The department’s schedule states that the school was handed-over on 27 September but the principal told Africa Check that it had been functioning since July. 
  • Thabata Senior Primary School in Lusikisiki – On 2 October this year the department tweeted: “Since July, the DBE has handed-over #1SchoolaWeek in the Eastern Cape. Today Thabata Senior Primary Schools is being delivered in Lusikisiki.” But the school’s principal told Africa Check that the school had opened its doors a year earlier on 4 October 2012.
  • Mdavuza Senior Primary School in Qumbu – The department claims that the school will be “handed-over” next Friday by South Africa’s minister of science and technology, Derek Hanekom. But the school’s principal says that the school has been in use since June this year. 
  • Nomandla Senior Primary School – The department’s schedule does not include a hand-over date for the school. But a teacher from the school told Africa Check that they moved into the new building in March. 

Africa Check was unable to contact the remaining schools on the department’s schedule. These include Gqweza Senior Primary School, Dumakude Junior Primary School, Tshantshala Senior Primary School, Qaka Junior Primary School, Jonguxolo Junior School (incorrectly spelt in the department’s schedule as “Jongixolo”) and Mazama and Maphindela Senior Primary Schools.

Our calls to Dumile Senior Primary School also went unanswered. However, an article published by Vuk’uzenzele, the official newspaper of South Africa’s Government Communications and Information service, stated that the school was opened in the “middle of December 2012”, not 26 July this year as the department has claimed.

Are all the “newly opened schools” complete?

Two of the schools Africa Check contacted revealed that building contractors were still working on the properties.

The department’s schedule states that Nogaya Senior Primary School in Libode was handed-over on 6 September this year. But the school’s principal told Africa Check that pupils and teachers had been using the school since January.  The principal said she was not aware of the official opening on 6 September and that the department had not been in contact with her about such an event.

She said teachers only had use of three of the seven classrooms and, as a result, different grades were crammed into the same classrooms. The school currently has 163 pupils. The school’s newly built toilets are also not functioning.  “We have been provided with temporary toilets,” the principal said. “One for the teachers and two for the learners.”

Africa Check contacted Maunga Projects CC, the contractor responsible for building Nogaya Senior Primary School.  Vision Ncube, a buyer for the company, confirmed that work was continuing at the school.

Vulindlela Junior Primary School in Mthatha is apparently also unfinished. The department schedule states that the school was “handed-over” on 19 September this year. The school’s principal, however, told Africa Check that construction of the school had finished on 29 September 2012 and the school had opened in January. The hand-over on 19 September was merely a ceremonial opening, he said.

And, despite the fact that construction finished a year ago and that the school has been declared “officially open”, the water supply has yet to be connected. For now, pupils and teachers have to use water from a rain water tank.

‘Delivery dates more important than official openings’

Approached for comment, Elliot Sogoni, an ANC member of Parliament and chairperson of the standing committee on appropriations, told Africa Check: “It was my understanding that the schools were completed and that they were being officially handed over.”

He added: “I agree that the most important date to know is the delivery date, not the official opening date.” Mr Sogoni said he was not aware that some of the schools had been open since last year.

Africa Check asked Annette Lovemore, a Democratic Alliance member of parliament and a member of the basic education portfolio committee, if she was aware that many of the schools the department claimed to be delivering each week were already open. “The answer to your first question is NO,” she said via email, ”We have certainly been sceptical about the department’s ability to deliver at this pace, given the past delays, but never anticipated that they would manipulate the situation to make it appear that delivery is taking place at a rapid rate (when it is, in fact, more than a year overdue).”

Equal Education, a nongovernmental organisation, was also not aware that the schools had been open for some time prior to being officially “delivered”.

“On average these schools are being ‘officially’ opened more than six months after learners have moved in and classes commenced,” Brad Brockman, the organisation’s general secretary, said.

“Why is this happening? We believe it is because the DBE, under pressure from the public and NGOs, is trying to create the false impression that it is delivering school infrastructure rapidly and deflect attention away from the serious problems with its [accelerated schools infrastructure delivery] programme.”

Africa Check approached the department of basic education for comment. Panyaza Lesufi, the department’s spokesman, replied via SMS: “I am deeply disappointed with your questions but a formal response will follow but to insinuate that the deputy minister is lying is just disrespectful period.”

The department has yet to respond to our questions. We will update this report if they do.

Conclusion – The department’s claim is misleading

The department’s claim that it is opening a school per week is misleading and little more than public relations spin.

Eleven of the schools that Africa Check contacted revealed that they were in use months before they were “handed-over” or “delivered” by the department. Construction work on at least two schools has not been completed. In one case, a school that has been officially opened still does not have piped water a year after construction apparently finished.

Surty, the deputy minister, misled the standing committee on appropriations when he claimed that the department is “delivering a school per week”.

The “one school a week campaign” says more about the department’s ability to plan official openings than it does about its ability to deliver new schools. The department has simply repackaged old promises to make it appear as if new schools are being delivered each week.

The fact that these schools have been built is significant. But this has been cheapened by the department’s calculated attempt to mislead.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

On 9 October 2013, following the publication of this report, Africa Check researcher Kate Wilkinson and a department of basic education spokesman, Albert Gumbo, were interviewed on PowerFM. During the interview Gumbo claimed - falsely - that the department had provided us with comment on our report and that we had failed to publish it. Despite the fact that we had sent questions to a number of department spokespeople, no comment was received from the department prior to publication.

On 10 October, the department issued a press statement rejecting “false reports” about the accelerated school infrastructure delivery initiative. It said it would not be "distracted by non-governmental organisations whose task is to misinform the public". The statement suggested that criticism of the initiative amounted to "twisting the facts for ulterior motives".

The statement also claimed that the deputy minister for basic education, Enver Surty, was merely referring to the “formal handover of a school” when he claimed the department was "delivering a school per week".  This is a “milestone that needs to be celebrated by government and local community alike”, the department said, adding:  “Celebrating success is not being disingenuous.”

But, as we have shown above,  the manner in which the department presented school openings was misleading and laced heavily with spin. Africa Check spoke to 11 schools, which the department claims it "delivered" in 11 weeks. At face value, it seems an impressive achievement. But the real delivery dates (when learning and teaching actually commenced in the schools) show that the department only delivered 11 schools in 12 months.

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