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May 21, 2010

South Africa's Education System Crumbling

South Africa's Public education system is in serious decline. Reports of dismal graduation rates, bad teachers and crumbling buildings are commonplace. In Eastern Cape Province, one of the poorest regions in the country, the public system there is in chaos.

You cannot tell from the faces of the school children, but their futures are in jeopardy. The public schools in the Eastern Cape are falling apart. The windows and doors at this school are cracked and broken. Another school has almost no books.

Xolile, who goes by one name, runs an organization known as Save Our Schools in Grahamstown, southeastern South Africa. He says everything in the schools is in urgent need of repair.

"Like the toilet system, the classrooms, the desks, the windows, so most things the department can easily fix," he said.

The department he refers to is the Provincial Department of Education. It is in charge of everything from infrastructure to teachers to books and supplies.

Xolile says one school for five years has been asking for help to fix the boy's bathroom. There is no water in the sinks and toilets. The roof has large holes in it.

"We wrote letters to the department," said student leader Dumisani Papy.  "We did a lot of stuff as in cleaning the toilets but no help has come."

But it is not a question of money. The government devotes 19 percent of its national budget to education.

"They have the money, sir. They have the money," added Papy.

This kind of situation is repeated all over the province, where much of the school infrastructure is in disrepair.

The problem is even worse in rural areas. Here, most students still go to school in mud huts, even though the government promised to replace all of them years ago.

In one case, the government did take down an old mud school. Cameron McConnachie, an attorney for the Legal Resources Center, explains what happened next.

"When the contractor arrived, he demolished what did exist. He built the trenches for a new school and then disappeared. They were left with nothing," said McConnachie.

The community complained, but three years later nothing has been done.

So they hired McConnachie to sue the Board.

"It almost seems like a disregard for the integrity and dignity of people and the people they are supposed to be serving," added McConnachie.

In the meantime, the students learn in temporary shacks of corrugated tin.

"Broken down doors are used as tables, bricks that are strewn around the construction site those are the seats," said McConnachie.

Most schools have a shortage of teachers. Nyaluza High School for more than a year has been asking the Board of Education to replace four teachers who were moved to another school. The schools' principal is Mangaliso Nkwinti.

"I don't know how many times we have been to the department. And how many times we have been so angry, talking to them, trying to show them the situation at the school, why we need so many teachers and to improve, which is the bottom line here," said Nkwinti.

There is also a shortage of teaching materials. Students are often forced to share the few available books. George Lamani teaches at Nyaluza High School.

"My principal has just explained that we have been systematically knocking at their door, talking professionally with them and they are not listening," said Lamani.

Experts say it is not a surprise that graduation rates in the Eastern Cape are low. The average number of students who graduate from high school is 50 percent. Some schools graduate as few as 9 percent of their students.

Derek Lydt, who runs the Public Service Accountability Monitor that monitors the educational system here, says another major problem is the quality of the teachers.

"Those who teach the teachers are not well qualified and the teachers themselves are not qualified and all of that obviously leads to poor education in the classroom," said Lydt.

Students like Dumisani Papy, who is to graduate this December, know the outlook is grim.

"It's a very little chance that many of us can make it," said Papy.

Officials in public speeches have acknowledged they are fully aware of this situation. But a spokesman for the Provincial Department of Education told VOA he could not find anyone to comment on the situation.