Students on the Eastern Cape of South Africa face circumstances more dire than most average American school-aged kids would recognize. Teachers in South African classrooms often have to make do with severely limited resources — not just without textbooks or chalk, but even without a blackboard, desks and chairs to accommodate their students.
Victoria John, writing for Africa's Mail & Guardian, reports on a classroom where children sit on packing crates and attempt to write while holding their exercise books on their lap. She goes on to explain that the conditions are even more troubling at other schools where students have nothing to sit on except the floor.
The person many hold responsible for these conditions is Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, who is currently facing litigation from the Centre for Child Law. The Centre claims that by failing to make sure that every classroom is adequately equipped with enough desks and chairs, Motshekga has violated the obligations placed upon her position by the constitution.
"If you visit these schools, you will see children trying to learn around desks that are falling apart. You will see five children crowding around one broken desk. You will see children sitting on the floor. You will see that proper learning cannot take place under these circumstances," the centre's director, Ann Skelton, told the Mail & Guardian.
"We are not talking about any luxuries here; we are talking about the basics."
The Centre for Child Law is being represented by the Legal Resources Centre and has filed an urgent request with the Mthatha High Court last week to force Motshekga to provide desks and chairs not only for the three schools directly attached to the lawsuit, but also hundred of schools around East Cape that lack these basic provisions.
This isn't the first time schools and child advocacy organizations have had to resort to the courts to remedy ills. Government documents show a four-fold increase in education-related lawsuits over the past year, with provisional education authorities having been involved in a total of 37 court cases — nearly half of which are still ongoing. By comparison, over the 2010-2011 academic year, only 9 lawsuits had been filed against these entities.
Schools such as Mbananga Junior Secondary School in the Libode district of the former Transkei try to obtain empty mealiemeal sacks for the children to sit on, but they still become dirty and cold from spending so much time on the floor, Skelton's founding affidavit states. There are 45 pupils in grade one at Mbananga, but there are no desks or chairs at all for them. At Mpimbo Junior Secondary School in the same district, there is only enough furniture to cater for 348 of its 785 pupils. Sirhudlwini Junior Secondary School in the Mount Frere district is still using the same furniture it got from the former Transkei education department in the 1970s.