Every single week since July the Department of Basic Education has been handing over a school to communities in the Eastern Cape. This represents a revolutionary change of fortunes for thousands of learners in a region that is beset with poverty.
But let’s start at the beginning. The people of the Eastern Cape were denied education facilities by the apartheid regime as punishment for their relentless stand against oppression. Not to be denied, hundreds of individuals, mostly women, rose to the challenge and approached their communities asking them to build schools which they did using the resources at their disposal. The result were mud schools; a proud effort by a dispossessed people at ensuring an education and a future for their children.
In 2009, the department made a submission to treasury to address the infrastructure backlog in education and approval and, crucially a budget, were obtained the following year. The Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative with a mandate to replace schools built from inappropriate material (mud, plankie and asbestos) was born. Inappropriate schools were found across the country but the bulk of the challenge is in the Eastern Cape.
At the beginning, the department, staffed with ex teachers and administrators, struggled to kick start the project. It was at this juncture that the department decided to bring in a Programme Manager, a qualified engineer, to run with the project. At the same time, it established a Programme Support Unit (PSU) made up of built environment specialists including Quantity Surveyors, Architects and Engineers. A period of planning followed thereafter followed by the appointment of implementing agents such as DBSA, IDT, CDC, CSIR and the Department of Public Works, principal agents and contractors. Very quickly, it was discovered that the Eastern Cape for all its beauty, offered a formidable challenge to supplier and contractor alike. The state of the roads meant that many a supplier could not deliver stock to site, preferring to decant it as far as the road would allow, usually a few kilometres from site resulting in double handling for contractors. In addition, inclement weather during the rainy season, not only stopped work on site for health and safety reasons, it further delayed the resumption of the work by rending the roads unnavigable for days on end. Then one had the spectre of poor performance by some contractors which resulted in contract termination and the consequent steps that had to be taken in measuring the work done, recruiting replacement contractors, agreeing a price for the remaining work and finally resuming work. Before we knew it, we were behind by a year.
Today, however, out of an initial batch of 49 schools earmarked for completion in 2012, the department is happy to note that 40 schools, and counting, have reached practical completion. In other words, they are fit for purpose and can be used for learning and more schools are reaching practical completion every month. The construction of the second batch of schools has started and lessons learnt in phase one are being applied in the second. For instance, no contractor no matter how good their reputation is allowed to build more than five schools.
A key demand for me has been that learning is not disrupted during construction and so learners either use existing mud, plankie, asbestos facilities or are “decanted” in to temporary classrooms, usually prefabricated buildings, while construction proceeds. As soon as the schools have reached practical completion, the Principal and their School Governing Body (SGB) are allowed to take occupation. After all, it is for teaching and learning that the classrooms are being built. However, such is the journey of the people of the Eastern Cape, that this particular chapter cannot be complete until the new school is handed over to the community and received by the Chief and local community. This is why government has been making a fuss about handing schools over to communities since July in a formal ceremony that goes beyond celebrating brick and mortar but acknowledges the heroic efforts of the past and links them to the achievement of a democratic society and government. Every hand over is an occasion of feasting, poetry and song and dance as the people continue their healing by removing one of the remaining vestiges of apartheid rule.
The schools, in addition to ordinary classrooms, come with science lab, computer lab with 27 laptops, library, nutrition centre, multi-purpose centre, decent sanitation facilities, administration block and a fully resourced Grade R centre with jungle gym, sand pit and own sanitation facility. The local refer to the schools as universities! They know the road they have travelled.
For a school to qualify for ASIDI assistance it must have a minimum enrolment of 135 learners but the initiative is not only about building schools. Close to a thousand schools elsewhere in the country were denied proper toilets, access to water and electricity. The initiative has been correcting this injustice and continues to meet its annual targets in this regard. Updates are available on the department’s website and on https://www.facebook.com/DBE.ASIDI.
All over the Eastern Cape, oases of learning are springing up as a people begin to find greater expression in their quest to escape poverty. To their pride, the department is adding dignity, the dignity of a people who would not be cowed, who educated their children in mud schools with pride and who are finally being rewarded for their efforts by a democratic government in a modern society. This is what freedom looks like.