Equalis­ers fight for schools not built

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion has taken the fight over the East­ern Cape’s ed­u­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture cri­sis to the SOE largely re­spon­si­ble

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Luzuko Sidimba & Nika Soon-Shiong

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers from the ru­ral East­ern Cape are push­ing for­ward with the na­tion’s grow­ing call to hold state-owned en­ter­prises (SOEs) to ac­count. Re­cently, Equalis­ers — high school mem­bers of Equal Ed­u­ca­tion — pick­eted out­side the of­fices of the Coega De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion in East Lon­don and Port El­iz­a­beth.

Coega is a state-owned en­ter­prise and one of eight agents in the prov­ince that pro­vide man­age­rial support. It is re­spon­si­ble for im­ple­ment­ing the project to build schools in the prov­ince for the national and East­ern Cape de­part­ments of ed­u­ca­tion.

Like Eskom, the Pas­sen­ger Rail Agency of South Africa and SAA, Coega has been al­lo­cated pub­lic money to do work on be­half of the gov­ern­ment and, in the 2017-2018 fi­nan­cial year, it was al­lo­cated R262mil­lion to build school in­fra­struc­ture in the East­ern Cape.

Coega’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Pepi Silinga, will earn R4.6-mil­lion this year but the ru­ral schools his or­gan­i­sa­tion has com­mit­ted to build or fix are still in cri­sis.

In the East­ern Cape, which has the big­gest in­fra­struc­ture back­log in the coun­try, there are 800 schools built of mud, wood, cor­ru­gated iron or fi­brecrete.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est national ed­u­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture man­age­ment sys­tem data, in the East­ern Cape, there are 1 955 schools with pit la­trines or no toi­lets at all, 53 schools with no wa­ter sup­ply and 177 schools with no elec­tric­ity. This is all in vi­o­la­tion of the law.

The legally bind­ing Min­i­mum Norms and Stan­dards for School In­fra­struc­ture state that, by Novem­ber 29 2016, all pub­lic or­di­nary schools had to have ac­cess to wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, proper san­i­ta­tion and not be made of in­ap­pro­pri­ate ma­te­ri­als.

The poor per­for­mance of im­ple­ment­ing agents such as Coega is not an East­ern Cape prob­lem alone but it has com­pro­mised the abil­ity of the East­ern Cape’s Ac­cel­er­ated Schools In­fra­struc­ture De­liv­ery Ini­tia­tive (Asidi) to fix the schools with the worst in­fra­struc­ture back­logs.

The aim was to build 510 schools in three years but only 179 schools have been built in six years.

This num­ber is ex­tremely low, and wor­ry­ing, con­sid­er­ing the back­log and the num­ber of schools al­lo­cated to an im­ple­ment­ing agent.

Coega, which has been an im­ple­ment­ing agent for Asidi since 2012, is in­volved in more than 900 on­go­ing school in­fra­struc­ture projects, many of which are are suf­fer­ing from poor or in­com­plete ser­vice de­liv­ery, the re­sult of poor con­tract man­age­ment and in­ter­nal con­trols.

Coega is re­spon­si­ble for procur­ing and man­ag­ing con­trac­tors and pro­fes­sional ser­vice providers to build school in­fra­struc­ture, and takes a man­age­ment fee of be­tween 6.5% and 10% of the to­tal cost of the project.

A team of Coega em­ploy­ees eval­u­ate con­trac­tors’ bids be­hind closed doors and school com­mu­ni­ties have no say in de­cid­ing on a con­trac­tor. East­ern Cape depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials are in­vited to at­tend pro­cure­ment com­mit­tee meet­ings but rarely do, and the min­utes of th­ese meet­ings are never re­leased.

Pro­cure­ment com­mit­tees’ de­ci­sions can be con­tested in court, for ex­am­ple, by a con­trac­tor that be­lieves that it should have been awarded the ten­der.

But court pro­ceed­ings in­evitably lead to Coega can­celling a con­tract and restart­ing the ten­der process, de­lay­ing the pro­vi­sion of school in­fra­struc­ture even longer.

The lat­est au­di­tor gen­eral’s Pub­lic Fi­nan­cial Man­age­ment Act re­port re­vealed that Coega’s pro­cure­ment pro­cesses were un­com­pet­i­tive or un­fair. The au­di­tor gen­eral also found that Coega’s board did not ex­er­cise ad­e­quate over­sight to pre­vent non­com­pli­ance with rel­e­vant leg­is­la­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, Coega has been slow to deal with ar­eas of risk, in­sta­bil­ity or va­can­cies in key po­si­tions, and key of­fi­cials lacked com­pe­tence.

Coega was

re­spon­si­ble

for R3-mil­lion of the pro­vin­cial depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion’s ir­reg­u­lar ex­pen­di­ture last year, which is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It was also re­spon­si­ble for the fruit­less and waste­ful ex­pen­di­ture of an­other R8-mil­lion — which could have pro­vided 95 toi­lets or 11 class­rooms.

The depart­ment is also in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions that Coega stopped and ter­mi­nated projects even though it had al­ready in­curred ex­pen­di­ture.

On av­er­age, Coega project man­agers han­dle be­tween 40 and 45 projects each, whereas the ideal would be 10 projects each. Over­stretched project man­age­ment re­sults in poor con­trac­tor over­sight, few site vis­its and lit­tle to no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with com­mu­ni­ties on the progress of school projects.

Two schools on Coega’s project list are the Vuk­ile Tsh­wete Se­nior Sec­ondary School, which is housed in pre­car­i­ous wooden struc­tures, and the Hec­tor Peter­son High School, which is wait­ing for Coega to build a new build­ing, a toi­let block, an ad­min­is­tra­tive block and a nu­tri­tion cen­tre.

Equalis­ers from th­ese two schools took mat­ters into their own hands and de­manded that Coega must pro­vide a writ­ten re­sponse to ser­vice de­liv­ery fail­ures and pro­vide tem­po­rary in­fra­struc­ture so­lu­tions for schools in which in­fra­struc­ture poses a threat to pupils, where there are in­suf­fi­cient toi­lets, and where the san­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties are un­hy­gienic, within 30 work­ing days.

The pro­test­ers have de­manded that Coega must add con­trac­tors that have failed to ful­fil their obli­ga­tions to the trea­sury’s data­base of re­stricted sup­pli­ers to bar them from fu­ture gov­ern­ment con­tracts. Coega must also pe­nalise con­trac­tors and pro­fes­sional ser­vice providers that don’t meet dead­lines.

When the group of Equalis­ers and Equal Ed­u­ca­tion staff ar­rived at Coega’s of­fices in East Lon­don, they were met by se­cu­rity guards who tried to in­tim­i­date them.

But the Equalis­ers were not swayed — nor would they be. Weeks be­fore the picket, Equal Ed­u­ca­tion re­quested a meet­ing with Coega to dis­cuss some of the projects as­signed to it. But it said a meet­ing would have to be ap­proved by its client, the East­ern Cape depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion.

Equalis­ers be­lieve that SOEs such as Coega are obliged to ac­count to their real clients — all South Africans, in­clud­ing pupils, par­ents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ties.

When Them­beka Poswa, Coega’s pro­gramme di­rec­tor for the depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion port­fo­lio, fi­nally ac­cepted the pro­test­ers’ mem­o­ran­dum in East Lon­don, her 32-sec­ond speech failed to ad­dress the core chal­lenges faced daily by poor work­ing-class pupils and teach­ers.

Equal Ed­u­ca­tion is aware that solv­ing the ed­u­ca­tion in­fra­struc­ture cri­sis will not be as sim­ple as re­mind­ing SOEs that they are be­ing watched, or that they are also ac­count­able to the pub­lic — and not just to the state.

The non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion be­lieves a wake-up call to Coega is a first step for pupils who have been failed — an im­por­tant first step to­wards the cre­ation of a state that works to undo the un­equal ru­ralur­ban ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem cre­ated by years of un­der­fund­ing.

The ed­u­ca­tion cri­sis in the East­ern Cape and the ques­tion­ing of the role of SOEs in our so­ci­ety strike not only at the heart of to­day’s po­lit­i­cal mi­lieu but also at the coun­try’s goals to re­dress his­tor­i­cal in­equal­i­ties, Equal Ed­u­ca­tion claims.

It is an im­por­tant step to­wards the cre­ation of a state that works to undo the un­equal ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

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