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With dire South African schools, activists take to Twitter

June 14, 2012 | 11:14 am

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Education activists tried protest marches. They camped outside South Africa's parliament. They even went to court to try to force government action in a country where some children study outside in deepest winter, thousands more learn in shoddy huts of mud and twig and the school year can nearly reach its halfway point without the government delivering textbooks.

On Thursday, they took to Twitter with the hashtag #Questions4Motshekga in the leadup to a news conference by the minister for basic education, Angie Motshekga. The hashtag rapidly became a trending topic here, as angry South Africans piled onboard.

"For how long will the poor pupils from Limpopo be taught under trees in this cold weather Minister?" asked one user, Karabo Mokoena.

"The dropout rate is increasing. What are [you] doing about it?" one South African, Julian Maake, wrote.

Another was even blunter: "How did you survive the [Cabinet] reshuffle?" Lethabo Phala asked.

Their impatience is understandable. In 2006, a landmark report on South African schools found that 80% of high schools were "dysfunctional" -- but little has changed since.

The performance of 12-year-old students in basic literacy and mathematics is dismal compared to neighboring African countries, according to Equal Education, a lobby group that took Motshekga to court in a bid to force improvements in school infrastructure.

Spokesman Doron Isaacs said in a phone interview that a national assessment on literacy and mathematics last year showed that less than a third of children in grade 3 (normally aged about 12) could do basic arithmetic and less than half had basic reading and writing skills.

Equal Education wants a court order to force Motshekga to meet promises to set a national standard for what kind of facilities a school should have. Of the 24,500 government schools in South Africa, only 54% have a phone; more than 3,600 have no power; more than 2,400 have no water; and more than 20,000 have no computers, libraries or science laboratories, Isaacs said.

South Africa is the richest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, but it's also one of the most unequal. Education spending is the responsibility of provinces often riddled with corruption. The national government has taken over education departments in Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces because of poor administration.

Critics also often blame teacher unions' intransigence for education failures.

Isaacs said Equal Education wasn't expecting overnight change even if it wins its court action, which  Motshekga is contesting.

"It's not that we naively believe that by that date all schools will be fixed. But it creates a standard that all provinces must commit to," Isaacs said.

Equal Education isn't the only group to take the education minister to court. Another lobby group, Section 27, won a court action recently to force the distribution of schoolbooks in Limpopo, where textbooks still have not arrived since the beginning of the school year in early January.

The court ordered that textbooks in Limpopo must be delivered by Friday. By Thursday, Limpopo schools still hadn't received them.

Motshekga told reporters at the news conference Thursday that the books would be delivered on time.

"As we speak, textbooks are being delivered to the central warehouse in Polokwane," said Motshekga, referring to a major Limpopo town. "We are therefore in time to meet the deadline for delivery to all schools by tomorrow."

She said Limpopo province had spent most of its budget on teachers, leaving insufficient funds for textbooks.

Motshekga said the government had set a goal to have one textbook per child for each subject by 2014.

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--Robyn Dixon

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