“Pockets of disasters”[1] and Essential Resources for Schools

Anele Mtwesi looks at the basics needed to deliver equal opportunity with respect to education.


The Social Profile of Youth, 2009 – 2014 Report[2] released by Statistics South Africa paints a rather bleak picture for black and coloured youth. The report indicates that there has been a decline in bachelor degree completion rates among black African and coloured students since the mid-1990s, with less than 4 percent graduating from university.  Education levels are linked to jobs. It is thus twice as hard for black African and coloured graduates to secure a job over their white peers according to the Report. 

This may be attributed to many things. But with the Statistician-General concluding “that it is in education that the irretrievably lost window of opportunity for a demographic dividend can be mitigated for future generations”[3] it is important to interrogate, and ask difficult questions about the policy positions taken to deliver quality education. What policy steps should be taken to progressively give black and coloured youth a chance to enjoy the fruits of education in 12 years’ time?  

The aim here should be to provide “inclusive and equitable quality education for all”[4]. If we agree that equal opportunity to receive a quality education is a prerequisite for equal opportunity to participate in a democratic society, it is important to determine what is equal opportunity with respect to education. As the great jurist, Ronald Dworkin, has observed learners “have equal opportunities ... when their wealth and other resources depend on the value and costs of their choices, but not on their luck, including their genetic luck in parents and talents”[5].  

How do we assess educational success?

The discourse around equal education opportunity in South Africa has been squarely focused on output (performance of standardised tests, matric results, number of pupils promoted to the next grade, how many enter university). This has meant that the government has put emphasis on the idea that everyone finishes at the same level, more in line with equality of outcome. While we can all agree that matric results are important, they may also be taken as an indicator of disparities. But they only offer a partial view of the real problem. If we use matric results as a measure of success then it is clear that while the basic education landscape looks better in terms of redress, equity and access it fares badly when it comes to quality and efficiency[6].

In South Africa’s Education Crisis: The quality of education in South Africa 1994-2011, Nicholas Spaull, states it is commonly accepted that roughly 25% of pupils perform significantly better than roughly 75%.[7] Spaull further notes that the better performing group are from wealthier schools. He concludes that South Africa has two education systems, with students split by wealth, socio-economic status, geographical location, and language[8]. An alternative view would be to shift our attention from outputs to inputs – measuring deficiencies in the foundational components and therefore improving quality and efficiency for all. 

Outputs refer to achievements and are often described in economic terms, like the higher incomes associated with each additional year at school.  Inputs are described in technical terms, such as available school infrastructure, the number of textbooks available and pupil-teacher ratios.[9]  

Delivering Essential Resources

The recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgement in Minister of Basic Education and Others v Basic Education for All focused on the inputs which are the fundamental education resources necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, for equal opportunity[10]. The judgement outlined what must be provided in an education system truly committed to and designed for improving equal opportunity for all. 

The case dealt with the Department of Basic Education’s failure to provide learners at public schools in Limpopo with textbooks following the roll-out of a new curriculum in 2012. By mid-year 2012, the Department had not ensured that each learner had a textbook for each subject. This persisted throughout 2013 and 2014, even though the High Court had, earlier, ordered that this be rectified according to a timeline. The SCA found that the failure to deliver text books amounted to an unfair discrimination against the affected learners: “Clearly, learners who do not have textbooks are adversely affected. Why should they suffer the indignity of having to borrow from neighbouring schools or copy from a blackboard which cannot, in any event, be used to write the totality of the content of the relevant part of the textbook? Why should poverty stricken schools and learners have to be put through the expense of having to photocopy from the books of other schools? Why should some children be able to work from textbooks at home and others not? These questions prove that there can be no doubt that those without textbooks are being unlawfully discriminated against.”[11] 

Adequate education is the first step towards equal education. An adequate education is one that provides sufficient resources to ensure that all students, regardless of background, race, class and gender have an equal opportunity to realise specified goals for their grade.  Adequacy is a floor; it is the minimum level of resources needed to realise stated goals. In order to compensate for the disadvantages of poverty, the Department of Basic Education should make available additional resources for poorer schools. 

This principle is applied in the Department’s regulations relating to the minimum norms and standards for public school infrastructure. These were set in November 2013 when, for the very first time, it became law that every school have water, electricity, internet, working toilets, safe classrooms with a set maximum number of learners per class, security, laboratories, libraries and sports facilities[12]. This was a huge milestone towards inclusive and equitable quality education.  But thousands of schools still lack the necessary infrastructure. While there are some improvements as indicated in the 2015 Department of Education’s National Education Infrastructure Management Systems Report[13], as compared to 2011[14] but slow progress and lack of accountability cannot be ignored.  The 2015 Report notes the following of the 23 589 public ordinary schools:

  • 452 schools do not have a water supply while 4 773 have an unreliable water supply;
  • 913 schools do not have electricity while 2854 schools have an unreliable electricity supply;
  • 128 schools are without ablution facilities while 10 419 schools are still using pit latrine toilets;
  • 1 547 schools do not have fencing at all while 58 schools have unreliable fencing;
  • 9 966 schools do not have sports facilities;
  • 181 schools are without communication facilities;
  • 18 150 schools are without libraries while only 3 287 of those with libraries have stocked libraries;
  • 15 984 schools are without computer centres; and
  • 20 312 schools do not have laboratory facilities. 

Source: Department of Basic Education (NEIMS Report)

What then are the Basics? 

The Constitutional Court in Mpumalanga Department of Education and Another v Hoërskool Ermelo and Another held that: 

the cardinal fault line of our past oppression ran along race, class and gender. It authorised a hierarchy of privilege and disadvantage. Unequal access to opportunity prevailed in every domain. Access to private or public education was no exception…. It is so that white public schools were hugely better resourced than black schools. They were lavishly treated by the apartheid government. It is also true that they served and were shored up by relatively affluent white communities. On the other hand, formerly black public schools have been, and by and large remain, scantily resourced. They were deliberately funded stingily by the apartheid government. Also, they served in the main and were supported by relatively deprived black communities. That is why perhaps the most abiding and debilitating legacy of our past is an unequal distribution of skills and competencies acquired through education. In an unconcealed design, the Constitution ardently demands that this social unevenness be addressed by a radical transformation of society as a whole and of public education in particular.”[15]  

How, then, should the Department of Basic Education realise the promises and hopes embodied in the Constitution? This question is both vast and perhaps even politically loaded. But we can all agree on what the basics which should be immediately addressed are. 

They are: 

  • adequate numbers of qualified teachers, principals, and other personnel in every school, every day; 
  • adequate and accessible infrastructure for all students;
  • adequate learning and teaching support material; and
  • appropriate class sizes.


This is not to argue that other resources are not important. But, the arguments above have been identified by the Courts as being essential to delivering a quality education. The Department has carefully crafted policies that are designed to guarantee that these essential resources are available to all students, especially those most vulnerable. The textbook case was an attempt to hold the State to a standard that it has set for itself. These resources are needed; yet the Department fails to make them uniformly available. 

The Statistician General has highlighted the crisis we currently face in our public education. Is an entire generation of young people being failed? 

Anele Mtwesi


[1] http://city-press.news24.com/News/angie-reads-riot-act-20160123
[2] http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/Report-03-19-01/Report-03-19-012014.pdf
[3] http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/2016/05/05/stats-sa-education-numbers-add-up-if-your-focus-is-the-population-at-risk
[4] http://www.education.gov.za/Newsroom/Speeches/tabid/298/ctl/Details/mid/3618/ItemID/3651/Default.aspx
[5] Ronald Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible Here? (2006) 108
[6] http://www.education.gov.za/Newsroom/Speeches/tabid/298/ctl/Details/mid/3618/ItemID/3651/Default.aspx
[7] South Africa’s Education Crisis: The quality of education in South Africa 1994-2011, Nicholas Spaull
[8] South Africa’s Education Crisis: The quality of education in South Africa 1994-2011, Nicholas Spaull
[9] The Failing Standard of Basic Education in South Africa, Brenda Matshidiso Modisaotsile
[10] Minister of Basic Education v Basic Education for All, http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZASCA/2015/198.html
[11] Minister of Basic Education v Basic Education for All, http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZASCA/2015/198.html
[12] http://www.equaleducation.org.za/content/2015/02/12/RegsMinimumNormsandStandardsforSchoolInfrastructure.pdf
[13] http://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Publications/NEIMS%20STANDARD%20REPORTS%20AS%20AT%2012%20MAY%202015.pdf?ver=2015-06-03-114948-520
[14] https://edulibpretoria.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/school-infrastructure-report-2011.pdf
[15] Head of Department : Mpumalanga Department of Education and Another v Hoërskool Ermelo and Another, http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2009/32.html