“Tomorrow, they’re going to ask, ‘why must I make an effort to go to school?'” — Van Vuuren.

No transport. No meals. No books. And no teachers.

This was the crisis confronting a delegation led by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga as it moved to intervene in the Eastern Cape where hundreds of thousands of pupils were left high and dry just weeks into the new school year.

With more than three quarters of its annual budget already allocated to paying teachers – of whom 5 000 have been identified as being surplus – the provincial education authorities introduced some dramatic cost-cutting measures.

These include cutting essential services such as school transport, which ensures that over 100 000 pupils, mainly from rural settlements, get to school each day.

Also cancelled was the school feeding programme, which guarantees that 1,6 million pupils receive at least one meal a day.

They also terminated the positions of more than 4 000 temporary teachers filling vacant posts at critically understaffed schools.

And more than 1 000 schools are still without stationery after irregularities were uncovered in awarding of contracts.

Despite the fact that the education department receives 46,5 percent of the province’s total budget, it is expected to end the financial year nearly R2-billion in the red.

After travelling to the Eastern Cape last week and conducting “high-level meetings” with the premier, Noxolo Kiviet, and the MEC for education, Mandla Kiviet, Motshekga announced in a press conference on Thursday that the school feeding programme would be immediately reinstated, as would transport in certain areas.

However, the minister did not say where the money would come from.

The DA’s spokesman for education in the province, Edmund van Vuuren, said many of the department’s financial woes came down to over-expenditure on staff – including what he described as “double-parked” teachers.

A total of R18bn of the department’s R23bn budget has already been spent on staff salaries. A further overspend of around R1,93bn – also on teachers’ salaries – is expected before the end of the year.

Around R214-million is needed to keep the school transport system functioning until the end of the financial year. Each of the 1,6 million school meals cost around R1,60 per day, or more than R2m in total, adding up to around half a billion rands each school year.

Van Vuuren said that five years ago the education department had identified 5 000 teachers’ posts which were deemed to be “in excess”.

“The teachers in these posts were supposed to be moved to schools where posts were available. But because of union intervention and a lack of political will they were never moved,” said Van Vuuren.

“Then they appointed temporary teachers to the vacant posts. So what you get is a situation where you are paying two teachers,” Van Vuuren said.

A total of 4 252 temporary posts have been terminated but this “posed a serious problem to teaching and learning”, Motshekga said in her briefing.

In addition, Van Vuuren says “displaced” teachers, who had been chased out of schools and communities were being paid to “sit at district offices or in other schools doing nothing”.

Motshekga said last week that these teachers were being sent back to their posts with immediate effect to attempt to solve the problem of understaffed schools.

But Van Vuuren posed the question: “Will these communities – who chased these teachers away because they weren’t working – accept them back again?”

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) demanded in a statement last week that all temporary teachers be reinstated, and that the identification of excess teachers be put on hold.

“As Sadtu we cannot fold our arms when the education of the children from the poor and working-class communities is being sabotaged by those who take home a huge chunk from the taxpayers’ coffers but elect to do the opposite of what their mandate demands, while on the other hand the corrupt and the corruptors of the department are enjoying an uninterrupted honeymoon,” the statement read.

Provincial secretary for the union, Fezeka Loliwe, could not be reached for further comment last week.

“Children must now walk long distances to school. They arrive there tired, they’re not fed and there is no teacher in the class,” said Van Vuuren.

“At the end of the day they walk home, not having learned anything, with an empty stomach and an empty head.

“Tomorrow, they’re going to ask, ‘why must I make an effort to go to school?’” said Van Vuuren.

The school nutrition programme and the school transport system were riddled with errors, inaccuracies and problems.

Van Vuuren said the transport programme was not being monitored and in one school he had encountered, 160 children had been budgeted for, while 400 were actually using the system.

The service providers merely ferried the extra children each day, and billed the department each month, often adding new routes without government approval. Just how much this costs the government is not known.

The school nutrition programme in the province also has a chequered history. In 2006, a forensic audit found that the programme had been defrauded of over R100m.

Controversial businessman Sandi Majali, who died recently, was one of the parties fingered by that report as having benefited from irregular tenders and overpayments.

A report on the programme issued by Rhodes University-based Public Services Accountability Monitor, released at the end of last year, also found that deliveries were irregular, very little record-keeping was being done and “leakages” of funds were occurring.

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