Students at Samson Senior Primary School do not have toilets – they were destroyed by a storm in 2010. They have to walk out into the bush and find a safe place to relieve themselves. The 130 learners at the school are taught in six mud structures and one zinc shack. Without insulation, the classrooms become freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer.
Because the school lacks a reliable water source, students are forced to walk five kilometres for a drink of water. Without an electricity connection, the school can’t use photocopier machines, computers or faxes. The school also has a furniture shortage. Three to four students have to crowd around a desk meant for two.
The conditions above, at one little school in the Eastern Cape, are not isolated. They describe a larger problem that defines South Africa’s education system. Nationally, there are 3 600 schools without electricity. In KwaZulu Natal alone there are over 600 schools that have no toilet facilities. 92 percent of South Africa’s schools do not have a functioning library and in the Eastern Cape there are 395 mud schools. The implications of these figures are dire. Learners are by law required to attend school, but most schools in South Africa are not suitable for providing a basic education; and in some cases, pose a risk to learners’ safety.
Equal Education (EE) was formed in 2008 and is based in Khayelitsha. It is a community and membership-based organisation that works, through advocacy and research, to improve the quality and equality of South Africa’s education system. Twenty years after Nelson Mandela's release from prison the education received by young people in South Africa remains vastly unequal. Despite attempts to overhaul the system, class and race-linked inequalities remain entrenched.
Education was the foundation upon which inequality was fashioned during the years of apartheid, but unequal educational opportunities still remain among the greatest obstacles to equality, dignity and freedom in today's South Africa. Decades of Apartheid policy meant that previously white schools received more funding than schools in black, coloured and Indian communities. Many of the inequalities created during Apartheid remain today – eighteen years into our new democracy.
Over the last four years EE has run campaigns aiming at improving the South African education system. These have included fixing schools broken window , reducing late coming  and ensuring learners receive textbooks . In 2010, EE launched a project called ‘The Bookery’. Located at 20 Roeland Street in Cape Town, ‘The Bookery’ acts as a depot for books that are suitable for school libraries.Through public support, EE has been able to open 17 libraries in schools across the Western Cape.
Through all its campaigns, the importance of the learning environment in schools became apparent. The right to a basic education cannot be seen as separate from the conditions under which learners are taught. Currently, there is no definition of what a school is or the resources that it needs. Section 5A of the South African Schools Act (SASA) empowers the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, to promulgate Minimum Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. Doing so is imperative for a number of reasons. It will help advance equality in the education system and empower communities to hold government responsible for schools which do not meet the national norms and standards. It will also improve accountability within government, as Minister Motshekga will be able to hold provinces accountable for substandard schools.
Over the last two years, learners, teachers, parents and communities have mobilised for school infrastructure. On their placards and in their songs they have called for libraries, toilets, water, electricity, fencing and computers. Learners have petitioned, picketed and fasted. To show their commitment to the cause they have slept outside Parliament. On Human Rights Day in 2011, 20 000 learners marched through Cape Town and this year they marched through Khayelitsha. Although Minister Motshekga committed to passing Minimum Norms and Standards by 1 April 2011, she failed to meet her own deadline.
At the beginning of this year, after having exhausted all the democratic means available, EE launched a court case against Minister Motshekga and the nine provincial MECs for Education. The papers which were filed in the Bisho High court in the Eastern Cape – the centre of South Africa’s education crisis. The 582 founding affidavit  includes supporting affidavits from teachers, principals, education experts and activist which outline the dismal state of school infrastructure. EE seeks a court order that would force Minister Motshekga to fulfil her obligation in SASA. Minister Motshekga has filed a notice in response to our court application and intends to oppose EE’s court case. EE expects the case will be heard towards the end of 2012.
Solving South Africa’s school infrastructure crisis will be an important step in solving the bigger problems in the education system. It is a problem which affects both teachers and learners and allows them to unite in a struggle for equality. Without a uniform infrastructure standard across the country South Africa’s education system, and the learners it produces, will continue to be defined by historical inequality.
For more about Equal Education, refer to www.equaleducation.org.za.