On 20 September 2012, Equal Education (EE) picketed outside the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) over its plans to close three schools on the basis of underperformance. Underperformance is an insufficient and impermissible reason for school closure, more so where the WCED has made inadequate interventions to remedy the situation.

In 2012 the WCED notified 27 schools they may face closure by the end of the year. Public consultations took place to determine the fate of the schools.

In some cases school closures may be legitimate and necessary; however, school closures should not be viewed as a reformative mechanism. EE has been in contact with all of the 27 schools and gathered information about their unique situations. While in some cases closure may be in the best interest of the learners, many school closures will have a negative effect on learners’ right to a basic education.

Three of the 27 schools were identified for closure on the grounds of underperformance: Peak View Secondary School, Beauvallon Secondary School and Zonnebloem Nest Senior School. “Underperformance” is a technical term used by the WCED which connotes a school whose overall National Senior Certificate (NSC) pass rate has fallen below 60%.

The South African Schools Act stipulates that “the Head of Department must take all reasonable steps to assist a school in addressing the underperformance”. From the documents provided to EE by the WCED, it is clear there have been no comprehensive, sustained and targeted interventions implemented by the WCED to improve learner performance at these schools.

The WCED is required under the South African Schools Act to ensure effective school management (by both the principal and the School Governing Body) when assisting an underperforming school.  At Beauvallon it has failed in this regard. The school has been made to operate without a permanent appointment to the principal post for over two years.  By failing to fill this post, the WCED precluded the possibility of strong and effective leadership which is needed to turn a school around.

In the case of Zonnebloem, the WCED later changed its motivation for closure to exclude underperformance. With a pass rate of 73% in 2010 and 85% in 2011, Zonnebloem, by the WCED’s own classifications, is not an underperforming school. This brings into question the level of research that the WCED conducted to identify schools for possible closure.

There is a heightened obligation on the part of the WCED to do everything in its power to save schools such as Beauvallon, Zonnebloem and Peak View which service underprivileged, disenfranchised and poverty-stricken communities in desperate need of empowerment through education.

Closure of schools for underperformance is of particular concern to EE because many of our members attend underperforming schools. These closures would have very real implications for EE’s membership, and for many learners attending similarly placed schools across the country.

The picket started outside the WCED on Lower Parliament Street in Cape Town. Picketers were addressed by Zonnebloem Nest Senior School’s principal Jonty Damsel, EE’s spokesperson Ntuthuzo Ndzomo, and learners.

The Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), acting on behalf of Equal Education (EE), has filed an internal appeal against the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) refusal to release information relating to the possible closure of 27 schools.  The WCED has failed to provide adequate reasons for withholding the information. EE has launched an online petition and released a documentary on one of the schools facing closure, Zonnebloem Nest Senior School.

On 13 June 2012 EE made a request for:

  • The names of the 27 schools that the WCED is considering closing at the end of the year;
  • The 2010 and 2011 National Senior Certificate (NSC) pass-rates and/or the Annual National Assessment (ANA) results of the 27 schools;
  • A list naming all the underperforming schools in the Western Cape for the past two years and their NSC pass-rates and/or ANA results for both 2010 and 2011;
  • Any letters, correspondence, documents, policies and other applicable materials reflecting the measures/interventions taken by the WCED to support the 27 schools;
  • Copies of the letters sent by MEC Donald Grant and addressed to the governing bodies of each of the 27 schools informing them of the possibility of closure and disclosing the basis upon which the decision to consider closure was made and;
  • Any documentation indicating the steps/processes the WCED intends following with regards to the closure of the 27 schools.

PAIA Appeal

The WCED’s refusal to grant EE’s request for information was made in terms of section 44(1)(b)(i)(bb) of PAIA. The reference to this section inferred that releasing the information may in some way frustrate the consultative process.

In an appeal filed, the EELC argued that the referenced section was not a valid basis upon which to deny access to the requested information. The appeal stated that “it fails to disclose any grounds, let alone sufficient grounds, as to why the release of the documents would be detrimental to the consultative process involving the fate of public bodies like schools and a public issue involving the potential closure of such schools.”

The consultative processes are underway and it is imperative that this information is released. The EELC has highlighted that “…the information requested would enhance rather than inhibit any deliberative process involving the potential closure of 27 schools”.  It is vital that the public be fully informed about the facts and circumstances surrounding the proposed closures so that the public is able to effectively voice their concerns.

EE accepts that closing schools can be justifiable and acceptable. However, by withholding the information, the WCED is preventing EE, learners, teachers, parents and communities from engaging meaningfully in the consultative process.

The WCED has refused to release information relating to the interventions or measures it took to support the schools prior to the decision to consider closure. It is important for the WCED to demonstrate that all options, other than closure, have been attempted. The closure of schools should not be viewed as a reformative mechanism for underperformance.

Earlier this month MEC Donald Grant refused to meet with EE to discuss its concerns about the closures.  MEC Donald Grant used the appeal of the PAIA request as a basis for refusing to meet with EE.  It is disappointing that the WCED would use its own refusal to provide access to legally accessible information to further shut off dialogue with a civil society organisation that is actively engaged in working to protect the interests of the learners at these schools.

Zonnebloem Nest Senior School

One of the schools facing closure is Zonnebloem Nest Senior School. It was informed by the WCED that it was facing closure because of underperformance. Last year it achieved a pass rate of 85% and in 2010 it achieved a pass rate of 73%. It is unacceptable that the WCED would cite underperformance as a reason for possible closure and then refuse to release the information that they based their decision on.

Zonnebloem’s principal Jonty Damsel has alleged that the school is being closed because the WCED is no longer willing to finance the school’s rental on a property close to the city centre. Concerns have also been raised that schools are being closed because their learners, who mostly live in townships, come from outside the “school-community”. This is what the WCED has officially told, for example, Peak View High School. To rebut such concerns it would be helpful to the public to see the relevant correspondence, as well as the remedial measures undertaken.

EE believes that the integration of our cities is crucial to the future of the country, and that a school, in the city centre, providing a reasonable quality education to township youth, should be protected.

EE calls on the public to support this petition and keep Zonnebloem open.


Why did Equal Education choose broken windows as its first campaign in 2008?

There are many problems that schools face in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town. Some of these problems are easy to see, while others are much more difficult. After three months of research, sitting in cold classrooms with teachers and learners in the middle of winter, Equal Education (EE) wanted to help fix some of the problems we were observing in schools. By using democratic means to fix the problem in one school we hoped to offer an example to all schools battling with poor physical infrastructure.

As one its first projects, members of the EE Youth Group were asked to go into their schools and take photographs of anything that they thought affected their learning at school. One EE youth group member, Zukiswa Vuka, returned with a photograph which revealed the devastating state of windows at her school, Luhlaza High School.

On further investigation we found that at Luhlaza High School there were 500 broken windows that had been broken for more than 4 years. Teachers and learners alike agreed that it was extremely difficult to concentrate in a cold classroom.

The problem of broken windows highlights the importance of having an environment conducive to learning at school. Learners at the school also explained that it was hard to be proud of their school when it looked the way it did. At this point it became clear that EE’s first campaign had to be about broken windows. We also wanted a successful first campaign in the Khayelitsha school community, in an effort to instill the belief that learners are able to bring about tangible changes to their schools.

How did EE work with school management?

EE worked closely with school management and learners to raise the issue of broken windows at Luhlaza High School. The campaign began with meetings with the school principal, teachers and leadership, consultation with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) and discussions amongst Luhlaza learner structures such as the Representative Council of Learners (RCL). EE had regular meetings with Mr Robin April, the then Acting Principal at Luhlaza, as well as members of the School Management Team. It is very important to EE that we have a good relationship with the management of the school, the parents, the community and the learners.

The RCL said they had been raising the issue of windows with the school management for years. The school management told us that they had written to the Education Department about the windows and other problems, but the response had been slow.

EE created a petition. The petition called for the windows to be repaired, but also requested that learners commit themselves to keeping them that way.

The mass petition was signed by 2000 community members, teachers, learners, caretakers and parents, and others including Robin April, Duncan Hindle (Director General of Education), Mampela Ramphele, Zackie Achmat, Judge Dennis Davis, Professor Mary Metcalfe, and Noel Robb.

How did EE engage with the WCED prior to organising the rally?

During its campaign to have the windows repaired, EE engaged a number of Department of Education officials. We began by meeting the relevant Circuit Manager at the Metropole East District Office, who is responsible for Luhlaza High School. We explained the situation of windows at Luhlaza, and pledged to work with the department to get them fixed. The Circuit Manager claimed that the issue of broken windows had never been brought to his attention by the school, and referred us to an official at the WCED head office.

EE then met with the head-office official responsible for scheduled maintenance at Western Cape schools to try and find out when the windows would be repaired. He too assured EE the issue had never been brought to his attention, and said there were many schools with much more serious problems than broken windows. He then explained to us that scheduled maintenance was planned for the school; that this maintenance did not include the repair of broken windows; and that this maintenance would take place in September 2010 – meaning a wait of two years.

EE had received quotations to fix the windows and the best price was R17,000. The school could contribute R5,000 and EE could contribute R5,000 so we asked the Department for R7,000.

Equal Education also met with Western Cape MEC for Education Mr. Yousuf Gabru and senior officials at the WCED Head Office. At the meeting, we explained all of our previous meetings. We were most encouraged to receive the support of the MEC for the windows campaign and the work of EE generally.

At this stage, after a few months of work on this issue, it was clear that it needed greater public attention. A rally in Cape Town was organised that involved 450 Khayelitsha learners from 18 schools, as well as learners from Phillipi, Wallacedene and the City Bowl area. At the same time high school learners, who were EE members, wrote articles for the press, were interviewed on local radio, and spoke to their families and friends.

How did EE prepare members for the rally?

While all of these meetings were taking place, members of the EE youth group – which then had a membership of 150 Khayelitsha learners from over ten schools  – began to mobilise their school-friends, explaining to them the situation at Luhlaza High School and enlisting their help. The campaign stressed the importance of schools working together to solve their problems. Although the campaign focused on Luhlaza, learners representing almost all high schools in Khayelitsha gave their active support. During youth group meetings, members discussed campaign methods and objectives, highlighting the importance of non-violence. Youth group members had fun practicing poetry and songs as a creative way of putting their message across to the WCED. Members created placards with clear messages written on them, in preparation for the rally. In the lead up to the rally, learners collected more than 30 kilograms of broken glass from the play-grounds of Luhlaza. This glass was later washed and used with coloured beads to make necklaces, bracelets and other items.

Marshalls and spokespeople were selected from amongst the learners, and were trained. More radio interviews were given, newspaper articles written, and memoranda and speeches were carefully drafted. On the day before the rally the learners prepared food, received their matching EE scarves, and attended to last-minute preparations.

How was the rally received?

There was a good public response from people in Khayelitsha and in the newspapers. People appreciated responsible school children raising their concerns in a respectful and lively manner. Unfortunately, the official who addressed the rally on behalf of the WCED, told the learners, who were from schools across Khayelitsha, that Luhlaza was the only school with broken windows. The learners knew this was false. The official also said the learners broke the windows, but the truth is that the windows were broken for nearly five years. She said the school must fix the windows from its maintenance budget. The school’s maintenance budget for the whole year is R28,000, which is not enough to fix the windows and look after the school.

What was the follow up?

EE held a follow-up meeting with WCED Metropole East. They promised the windows would be fixed. EE wrote to them requesting a timeline, but did not receive one. On 13 November EE held a public meeting at Desmond Tutu Hall in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, attended by over 200 members of the community. MEC Gabru and a dozen education department officials came to that meeting. They announced the windows would be fixed and R671,000 would be invested in the school. This was a great achievement by everyone who was a part of the campaign. It appears that the Quality Improvement, Development, Support and Upliftment Programme were tasked with dealing with the situation.

During the December / January summer holidays every broken window at Luhlaza was fixed. This is the real victory. However fixing the windows cannot cost anything close to R671,000. EE has therefore written repeatedly to the department and QIDS-UP asking for a breakdown of how the R671,000 will be spent, and asking (as was suggested by the department) that EE be involved in meetings relating to the spending of this money.

Other campaigns

Why did the Western Cape Education Department want to close 27 schools?

In June 2012 the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) said they wanted to close 27 schools in the province. Twenty of these schools were in rural areas and seven were in urban areas.  The WCED gave different reasons for wanting to close the schools. These included: low learner numbers, poor school infrastructure, a majority of learners at one school coming from outside the area, and underperformance.

Why did EE get involved?

EE accepts that sometimes the WCED has to close schools. Sometimes this is in the best interests of learners, particularly in the case of small rural schools with poor resources. However, we were unhappy with the closure of certain schools for these reasons:

  • Three schools were going to be closed for underperformance: Beauvallon, Peak View and Zonnebloem high schools.  EE argued that underperforming schools should not be closed, but that they should be properly supported by the WCED.
  • In some cases, the schools which the WCED wanted to place learners in would provide them with a worse quality of education. In some cases, the learners would not even be able to learn in their Home Language anymore.
  • One of the reasons the WCED gave for closing Peak View was that most of the learners, who are black, come from outside the area. EE believes that children should be free to go to school wherever they choose and that people should not be divided by race.
  • EE was very unhappy with the timing of the school closure process because the WCED took such a long time to make its final decision. This put learners, parents, teachers and principals in a very uncertain position.

What did EE do?

EE, supported by its lawyers, the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), did the following:

  • When the WCED announced that it wanted to close schools, we asked for more information. When they refused to provide it, we fought this decision and in the end the Department gave us the information we needed.
  • We made contact with and met with the principals, teachers and learners of all 27 schools, to find out what was happening at their school and to offer our support.
  • We met with the WCED to discuss the specific problems we had with the school closures, and made it clear that if they did not deal with these issues, we would take them to Court.
  • We marched to Parliament and picketed outside the Department’s offices in town to make our voices heard.
  • We did TV and radio interviews and wrote an article in the Cape Times to raise people’s awareness about what was happening.

The department’s decision

In October 2012, the Department announced that seven schools, it had planned to close, would remain open. Because of the efforts of principals, teachers, parents and learners at these schools, they were kept open. It was also because of the hard work of EE, the EELC and other organisations like the Save Our Schools Coalition.

Two school closures which we thought were particularly unfair – Zonnebloem and Peak View – around which we campaigned fervently, were reversed.

EE called for the Department to support Zonnebloem and Peak View in improving their results. The Department promised to work with these two schools to improve them.  Following EE’s suggestion, the Department said that it would approach the private owner of the land on which Zonnebloem is located to improve the condition of the school buildings.

The Department initially said it would not transport learners from Denneprag Primary to the placement school.  EE pointed out that Denneprag learners would have to walk a dangerous route to reach the placement school.  The Department will now provide transport to Denneprag learners and to all rural learners where transport is necessary.

The Department promised to pay for school uniforms for all relocated learners. It also promised to cover school fees for the 2013 school year (for learners moving to a school with higher fees).

Urgent Interdict 

In November, 18 of the schools facing closure, their governing bodies and SADTU applied for an urgent interdict to keep 18 of the remaining 20 schools open (two schools did not want to be involved in the case). The application was successful – the Cape High Court ordered MEC Donald Grant to reinstate leases and basic services to 17 of the 18 schools. These schools will therefore remain open until a final decision is made on the matter. Judge Desai, who presided over the matter, will release his judgment in March.

Follow up

In December, EE met with the Department once more to ensure that its promise to improve the education of learners at the 20 closing schools was being fulfilled. EE promised to work together with Zonnebloem and Peak View to ensure the situation at these schools improved, and to monitor progress made.

EE continues to monitor the situation at these schools.

According to a short history compiled by the DG Murray Trust, the issue of streetlights in Khayelitsha was first highlighted by an article by Nokubonga Yawa in June 2012. Nokubonga had been an Equal Education activist and staff member for many years, but was by then working at GroundUp. Her article highlighted the fact that the lack of streetlights has been a problem for years.
In September 2012, Yawa wrote a follow-up piece which showed that nothing had been done, despite promises and excuses by various City of Cape Town officials. On the same day GroundUp published an editorial on the issue, which included a map of the streelight outages in Khayelitsha.
By the end of 2012, the DA and Helen Zille had not taken any action to fix the Khayelitsha streetlights. On 15 January 2013 only 11 streetlights were working on Landsdowne Road in Khayelitsha. The next day GroundUp published a piece by EE Treasurer Doron Isaacs, calling out Zille and Patricia de Lille for their fake promises, Twitter spin and tendency to blame the poor instead of attending to service delivery.
By 30 January, GroundUp reported the City was making some progress in fixing the lights. However, officials continued to make excuses that we didn’t fully believe. They claimed the lights were fixed in September 2012, getting the “burning rate” up to 90%, but this did not accord with the reality we observed. Secondly “vandalism” and “cable theft” were blamed as the main problems. These are obviously real problems, but to some extent they were used as excuses to cover for a lack of maintenance over the years. In fact, at around the same time, it was reported that copper wire theft had been cut massively.
Meanwhile, comrades from EE, SJC and TAC had already been discussing a night march down Landsdowne Road to demand streetlights. The date for the night march was set for Monday 4 February 2013.  On 1 February, the City rejected the notice about the intended march, sending an email stating:
“The police have said that they are unable to commit police to tonight’s march, as there have been other protests happening in Khayelitsha today, which they are concerned about.”
This may have been the true reason, but quite possibly it was political, designed to give the City another week to fix the lights before our march. The date of the march was then moved to Monday 11 February.  By 11 February, the City had indeed fixed a number of the lights. We decided to continue with the march as a celebration.
GroundUp did monitoring and follow-up pieces throughout 2013. Their first report was in April. In August they reported that 88% of lights on Landsdowne were working, but other problems were noted. In December 2013 GroundUp reported a roughly similar situation.