While other provinces grappled with the reopening of schools, the Eastern Cape education MEC was embroiled in a messy legal fight over loos.
Pupils of three rural schools in the province’s OR Tambo District could not return to school when they reopened. This was after contractors dismantled the toilet roofs during a dispute over payment.
It took a judgment of the high court in Makhanda on Tuesday to clean up the mess. The ruling was the third judgment against “Jerry Sifanele” and “Mr Ntaphane” since August 2019 interdicting them from tampering with the roofs.
MEC Fundile Gade butted heads with Sifanele and Ntaphane in the high court last Wednesday. He asked judge Nomathamsanqa Beshe to compel the contractors to restore the toilets. Gade also asked the court to find them in contempt of the previous orders and lock them up for six months and slap them with the legal costs.
Edward Sheun, the department of education’s head of legal services, said the contractors had complied with the previous “order to repair and reinstate the ablution facilities at Gwengwe Junior Secondary School”.
“However, during first the school holiday and then the lockdown, the [contractors] dismantled the ablution facilities at Tsantseka, Julukunqu and Xwili Junior Secondary Schools,” the judgment reads.
“As a result of this, the schools’ ablution facilities were rendered to be non-compliant with the requirements for reopening after the closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Functional toilets being one of these requirements. Consequently, the three schools will not reopen until there are proper ablution facilities in place. In that way, the learners’ rights to basic education will be compromised.”
The contractors did not deny that they had removed the roofs but claimed that they were not part of “the initial contract and building plans of those ablution facilities”.
“The [contractors] seem to lose sight of or simply ignore that there are court orders that interdict and restrain them from acting in this fashion in relation to these four schools,” Beshe said in the judgment.
Beshe said even if they had a valid claim, that did not give them the right to take the law into their own hands. She said their “actions have the effect of denying scholars at these schools access to basic education and they had no right to do so”.
“Through their actions, the ablution facilities of at least three of the schools have been rendered not to conform with the standard required of ablution facilities for the reopening of a school in light of a raging Covid-19 pandemic that is besetting the world. Obviously, if the schools cannot reopen, the pupils cannot go to school,” said Beshe.
“This ranging pandemic (Covid-19) has exacerbated matters. It requires that we observe high standards of cleanliness and hygiene. Besides the pandemic, the best interest of the children, which are paramount, dictates that their rights to inter alia education and dignity be safe guarded. There are lawful means of resolving disputes between parties, and that is not by taking the law into one’s hands.”
Beshe ordered Sifanele and Ntaphane to restore the toilet roofs at the schools within 20 days and ordered them to pay the legal costs.