Twenty-six years after the dawn of democracy, scores of pupils are still having to learn in dire conditions in the Eastern Cape as a result of empty promises made by the provincial government.
Promises to fix and rebuild some of these schools, which were built as temporary structures during the apartheid regime, remain just that – promises.
One such school is Bethelsdorp Comprehensive School, situated 20km north of Port Elizabeth.
The school, which is made of prefabricated structures, was built in the 1970s as a temporary school building and was supposed to have been replaced a long time ago.
Work had started on a new site adjacent to the old school three years ago, when the department allegedly failed to pay contractors.
The contractors downed tools and abandoned the construction site, leaving building material unattended.
As a result, building materials have disappeared.
But driving around Salt Lake, in the community around the school, one cannot help but notice a number of new walls, built from red face-brick, mushrooming all over.
The school itself is in shambles: some of the classrooms are overcrowded, the roof leaks when it rains, the walls break easily because they are made out of boards and the toilets are an eyesore.
Windows and doors are broken and many of the building’s walls have unsavoury words scribbled on them, completing the ugly picture.
Crime is also a big problem at the school, with gangs allegedly selling drugs to pupils.
This has forced the school’s management to ringfence the building in order to isolate pupils.
Ralph Jacobus, the principal of Bethelsdorp, said he did not know why the new school, which cost R83 million to build, had not been completed.
He referred questions to the department of education.
“This building is very old. This school was built in 1972. It was supposed to be a temporary structure for about 10 years or so, and then a permanent structure was supposed to be built. But as you can see, that never materialised.
“The conditions are very bad. The classroom ceilings have broken over the years and have had to be replaced regularly. When it rains, some of the classes become wet inside. The windowpanes are so old, you just pump into them and they fall out.
“The toilets are not in a good condition for the pupils. I actually once said that I would never want my child to use a toilet like these ones,” he said.
Jacobus said they were supposed to have moved into the new school at the beginning of 2019.
“We cannot comment on the reasons for the delay. All I know is that my staff is demoralised working in such inhumane conditions, where ceilings can easily fall on top of you. It breaks you down and affects you mentally. The environment is also not conducive for the pupils. We repair as much as we can from the money we receive for maintenance, but it is actually a waste because that is money that could be spent much more constructively.”
Jacobus, who has been teaching at the school since 1983, said some years ago, the ceiling collapsed in a class in which he was teaching moments after the pupils went out for a break.
“We have children here, human beings. It is not conducive for us to work in such conditions. It is risky. You always have to look at the ceilings to see what is above you.”
Vernon Whitebooi, chairperson of the school governing body in Bethelsdorp, said the project stopped because contractors were allegedly not paid.
“The department is aware of the school being built and of the delays. Even at the initial stages, the project was on and off. In the middle of 2018, construction stopped. It resumed again at the end of 2018. But the project stopped again in 2019 because contractors were not paid by the department. So, the whole project stopped and the contractors pulled out,” he said.
He said that after the project stopped, people started breaking in and stealing material which was left unattended.
“It was a free-for-all because there was no security at the time.”
Not far from Bethelsdorp Comprehensive School is Van Der Kemp Primary School, which is also in a state of disrepair.
Florence Maree, chairperson of that school’s governing body, said nothing had changed since previous education MECs visited the school last year.
“Some of the classrooms are overcrowded. We have more than 60 pupils in a class that is supposed to accommodate only 30. For instance, in Grade 4 (a) there are 60 pupils, and in Grade 4 (b) there are 61 pupils. It is the same situation in Grade 5,” she said.
“There is no staff room for teachers; they have to share a small room.
Grade R pupils are crammed into a small darkroom that is not properly ventilated.
“We do not know why the department is not building our school because we have sent it letters several times over the past 15 years. It’s like our school does not exist. And yet two different MECs visited and saw the conditions. It is very painful that our children have to endure these conditions,” she said.
In January 2019, former education MEC Mlungisi Mvoko was quoted in the Port Elizabeth-based Herald newspaper, after seeing the conditions at Van Der Kemp Primary School, as saying: “If you look at this school, there is no school here actually. We have to go back and ask what is happening.”
Government has forgotten about us. It doesn’t even know that we exist
But despite these strong words of condemnation by Mvoko, nothing has changed at the school.
Maree said the school would celebrate its 50th year in existence in July but had nothing to show for it.
“Government has forgotten about us. It doesn’t even know that we exist. The department says it won’t be building any schools now because it has no money. But these politicians were here; the MECs visited our schools and made promises. It seems as if they were just here to show off and be on TV and do nothing after that,” Maree said.
Loyiso Pulumani, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape department of education, failed to respond to questions sent by City Press.