THE financially troubled Eastern Cape Education Department owes millions of rands to former school nutrition service providers, but is battling to pay because it is not clear who must be paid and how much they are owed. This must still be verified.

The service providers are owed for services rendered before the nutrition programme was decentralised, after the national department’s intervention. Some of the bills date as far back as 2005.

While the department came up with a “more effective” solution to school nutrition – which had been suspended for months prior to the Section 100(b) intervention in March due to non-payment – past providers are still awaiting payment.

Provincial Education superintendent-general Modidima Mannya said last week that everyone would be paid, but the department wanted to avoid paying the wrong people “as has been happening before”. “Because some people are owed money from way back, we’re trying to accurately identify who is owed money and why, because you’ll find that some are just taking chances,” he said.

“But people are starting to get paid. We understand that some have had their lives disrupted, but we can’t sort it out in one day as there are processes to be followed.”

Some of the service providers sought help from the national department and wrote letters to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and director-general Bobby Soobrayan after failing to get a response from the provincial leadership.

The DA’s provincial education spokesperson, Edmund van Vuuren, said the payment chaos was due to “dysfunctional” district offices. “There was no real database to capture who was offering their services,” he said.

“It’s the people on the ground, district offices, that are inept because they should be able to tell head office who needs to be paid and how much. But there were often no official contracts signed by the provincial department, as district offices just allowed service providers to operate.

“Now they can’t tell head office who to pay and how much because there’s no proof.”

Barbara Mhlaba, who is owed money for feeding pupils at about 16 schools in the Bethelsdorp, Zwide, New Brighton, Kwazakhele and KwaMagxaki area, said she had even driven to Zwelitsha to find out why she had not been paid.

“Now that they’ve solved the school nutrition problem, they’re not really bothering with past feeders because when I phone to find out when to expect my money, nobody knows. Sometimes when I call, nobody answers and I am forced to drive to Zwelitsha myself to get answers, which are always iffy,” she said.

Mhlaba said payments were initially on schedule and paid in full, but things went awry last year “when there was a change in leadership”.