Equal Education welcomes the Order of Court made by the Western Cape High Court in the Grootkraal matter last week as a crucial affirmation of the right to education in South Africa. The Order interdicts the MEC for Education, Western Cape and the Head of the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) from taking any steps to close or relocate Grootkraal UCC Primary School (Oudtshoorn) without following a process of proper consultation and meaningful engagement with the school, the School Governing Body, parents and all other interested parties. It also recognizes the need for suitable accommodation, catering for the health and educational needs of learners and staff, and the existence of adequate means of transport.
Grootkraal UCC Primary School is a public school that accommodates 160 learners in a rural area near Oudtshoorn, and falls within the poorest quintile of schools in the country. It was established some 80 years ago on a privately-owned farm, subject to a lease agreement between the land-owner and the WCED. The issue of the school’s continued tenure on the land arose last year following a change in ownership of the property. The new land-owner seeks to develop a guesthouse on the property, and accordingly refused to extend the WCED’s lease for the school premises. In May 2011, a WCED official informed the school that the WCED had taken the decision to close the school by the end of June 2011, and that the 160 learners would be accommodated in “mobile units” at a small farm school (of some 30 learners) nearly 20 kilometers away. This decision was taken without consulting the school governing body, the school principal, parents or learners, as required by law.
Section 33 of the South African Schools Act, read with section 18 of the Western Cape Schools Act, provides that the MEC may only close a school by notice in the Provincial Gazette; and only after informing and granting the school governing body a reasonable opportunity to make representations, and conducting a public hearing to enable the community to make representations on the proposed action. The MEC must consider these representations before taking any decision.
Before the High Court, the school challenged the WCED’s failure to meet these procedural requirements and sought an interdict pending proper consultation. The school also challenged the WCED’s proposal to move the school into mobile classrooms nearly 20 kilometers away. The school pointed to a lack of adequate infrastructure at the site, including toilets, and to the distance that learners’ would have to travel to reach the school without the availability of public transport.
The Court granted the interdict sought by the school. It ordered the WCED to attempt to re-negotiate a lease agreement in respect of the school premises, and to follow a process of “meaningful engagement” with the school and all affected parties. The Court ordered further that the school should not be relocated in the 2011 school year, and that any relocation must be made to “suitable accommodation, catering for the health and educational needs of the learners and staff” and having regard to the need for proper and adequate means of transport.
This Order is important because it has successfully protected the constitutional right to basic education of learners. Following the example of the recent Constitutional Court judgment in the Juma Musjid case, the court here has sought to protect the educational rights of learners despite the property rights of a private land-owner. Equal Education urges the MEC for Education in the Western Cape and the landowner to negotiate successfully to ensure the continued existence of this 80 year-old school, so that the learners’ right to education is protected and respected by all.
For Equal Education comment contact: Janice Bleazard at 079 1266 096 or email@example.com