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4 December, 2013
Equal Education, by far the biggest campaigner for the publication of the school infrastructure norms and standards, greeted the publishing of the regulations this weekend by issuing a statement saying “After years of conflict with Minister Motshekga, we feel pleased to be walking together with her towards decent schools for all”. It’s a sentiment shared by many.
Finally, government has listened, and has produced school infrastructure regulations that are far more sensible, reasonable and responsible than its previous attempts. It is to be welcomed, too, that government has acknowledged that ten years is far too long a timeframe for providing our children – and thus our country’s future – with appropriate structures conducive to learning. No longer will schools have to go without basic services such as sanitation – these will have to be provided within three years. There is also shortened timeframe – from ten to seven years – for the provision of classrooms, electronic connectivity and electricity supply. Of course, it would have been even better if the regulations went further to ensure that basic services such as access to water and sanitation were attended to immediately, but it must be accepted that there are certain constraints.
By far the most significant improvement (compared to the draft regulations) are the universal design requirements for schools catering for learners with special education needs. These schools must now be fully accessible and include, amongst other things, ramps; clear floor passages and walkways for wheelchairs and other mobility devices; and visual aids for communication between educators and learners who are deaf or hearing-impaired.
The real work now is to ensure that the regulations are complied with. South Africa is never short on producing progressive policies, but the challenge is always around how these are implemented. There still remain some doubts whether the regulations are strong enough, since they contain numerous ‘escape clauses’ which could potentially be used to justify non-compliance. Provincial governments will ultimately be responsible for ensuring compliance with the regulations; MECs will have to see that infrastructure budgets and plan are developed and reported on. The question is, how will the Minister ensure that provinces comply, and what action will be taken against those who do not comply? We know, after all, just how weak some provincial governments are.
Government was made to listen, and it relented. The result is regulations that neatly balance practicability and desirability. Now we wait to see if we will still talk about mud schools, with no ablution facilities, no libraries and no laboratories in three years’ time.