The old blue buildings at Everest Primary School in Newclare are being demolished – carefully – because they contain asbestos, a material that was banned in South Africa in 2008 because it’s known to cause cancer.
Everest Primary is one of 29 schools in Gauteng earmarked for replacement by the province’s department of education because they are made of asbestos.
They all should have been replaced by 29 November 2016, but none of them were. Everest is the only one where construction has even started.
The deadline was set in November 2013 when Minister of Education Angie Motshekga signed regulations stipulating the minimum infrastructure norms and standards that all South Africa’s public schools must meet.
The regulations stated that schools made of mud, wood, metal and asbestos had to be replaced with appropriate building materials within three years. No mud, wood or metal schools have been identified in Gauteng, just the asbestos schools.
Everest Primary is not the only asbestos school in the suburb. Newclare Primary School, a couple of blocks away, is on the Gauteng Department of Education’s (GDE’s) replacement list too. But Newclare Primary is unlikely to be replaced until at least 2019. The GDE is way behind schedule.
Newclare lies just west of Joburg’s CBD. More than half of the people who live there are coloured, according to Statistics South Africa’s Census 2011. It’s close to Sophiatown – or Triomf as it used to be known, after the apartheid government in the 1950s forcibly removed the people who lived there. It’s also next door to Westbury, an area with a reputation for drugs and gang violence.
Not far away, on the other side of Main Reef Road, is Riverlea, where another three asbestos schools are located: Wilhelmina Hoskins Primary, Riverlea Primary and Riverlea Secondary School.
In fact, more than half of the asbestos schools identified for replacement by the GDE are clustered in south-western Johannesburg, in an area that extends for roughly 15km from Newclare and Riverlea, down through Noordegsig, Orlando East and Pimville in Soweto, to Eldorado Park.
Six asbestos schools are scattered around Tshwane, one is in Ekurhuleni, two are in Randfontein, one is in Vereeniging, and two are in northern Johannesburg.
Altogether, more than 25,000 learners and nearly 700 teachers attend these 29 schools.
Entirely versus partially
But the 29 schools on the GDE’s replacement list are only a small part of the province’s asbestos problem.
For some reason, the school infrastructure regulations distinguish between schools that are built “entirely of asbestos” and those that are built “partially of asbestos”.
Deciding which schools are entirely asbestos clearly isn’t a straightforward process. The GDE’s list has changed three times in the two years since it was first made public. The current list of 29 schools appears to have been settled on only towards the end of 2016.
“Initially, 21 schools built entirely of asbestos were identified in the province. But the brief was later expanded to include schools built predominantly of asbestos,” explained Oupa Bodibe, the GDE’s spokesperson.
“These are schools that were initially built entirely of asbestos, but when additional facilities were built, such as additional classrooms or toilets, these structures were built of brick and mortar,” he said.
This doesn't explain the omission of a school like Noordgesig Secondary School in Soweto, for example. It has 24 asbestos classrooms, but one brick-and-mortar building, but it is not deemed to be entirely asbestos and therefore isn’t one of the 29 schools on the replacement list.
The important distinction in terms of the school infrastructure norms and standards is that by law “entirely asbestos” schools had to be replaced within three years of the regulations being passed, but there is no deadline to replace partially asbestos schools.
This distinction between entirely and partially asbestos schools and the prioritisation of only entirely asbestos schools does not make sense to Equal Education, a non-governmental organisation that has been campaigning for years for legally binding norms and standards for school infrastructure.
“There is no rational basis for excluding an unsafe school or classroom from the ambit of the regulation, merely because part of the school is safe,” its spokesperson said.
A much bigger problem
So the 29 Gauteng schools listed for replacement are merely those considered to be entirely or predominantly asbestos.
“The province does have other schools that don’t fall into the three-year timeline, although they are partially built with asbestos,” said Bodibe.
There are, in fact, 214 of them, according to a list compiled by the GDE in 2014 and made public in 2015, and most of them are clustered in townships, such as Soweto, Tembisa, Thokoza, Kathlehong, Vosloorus, Mamelodi and Hammanskraal.
Assuming the GDE’s asbestos schools lists are accurate and complete, this means that 243 of the just over 2,000 public schools in Gauteng contain asbestos. That’s about one in every eight schools.
This affects over 300,000 learners, two thirds of whom are primary school children, and nearly 10,000 teachers, not to mention non-teaching staff, according to numbers published in the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) 2016 school masterlist.
“Asbestos fibres are so dangerous that it is illegal for an employer to put any person at risk of exposure to them – and yet teachers and children are in school buildings made of the substance,” said a spokesperson for Equal Education.
Yet neither the GDE nor the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) appear to be overtly concerned about the November 2016 deadline for the replacement of the entirely asbestos buildings being missed.
The DBE’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, did not reply when asked twice via email whether the minister of education intended to do anything about the GDE missing the deadline to remove the province’s 29 asbestos schools and whether they are safe for teaching purposes.
However, he did respond that he had referred the questions to the appropriate person at the GDE, but the GDE did not reply either.
When will the schools be replaced?
Equal Education is demanding that all schools built with asbestos-containing materials, not just the 29 entirely asbestos schools, are “eradicated” and fixed by 29 November 2020.
According to the NGO, Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng’s education MEC, undertook to do this at a meeting in March.
A report on asbestos schools published recently on the GDE’s website appears to back this up.
It states that five schools are currently in commission, that the department “envisages rebuilding” 12 more schools by 2019, and that it “has made an application to the national Department of Basic Education for Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (Asidi) funding with the intention to fast track and replace the remaining 12 asbestos schools within the next two financial years.”
The report mentions nothing about the 214 partially asbestos schools.
When asked what the GDE intends to do about those schools, Bodibe said: “The department is planning to replace all asbestos classrooms over time.”
But how much time will it take? In the 2014 Gauteng school infrastructure project list, the only one the province has made publicly available, budget had been allocated for only 13 of the 214 partially asbestos schools before 2030.
By that time, this year’s grade ones would have finished matric, and Noordgesig Secondary’s teachers and learners would have had to wait 13 years for their dilapidated asbestos classrooms to be replaced.
According to Isaac Ramrock, chairperson of Noordgesig’s school governing body, some of the school’s asbestos classrooms have already started to crumble and break, exposing the asbestos.
Ramrock’s statement is in a founding affidavit filed by Equal Education in a case it is bringing against the minister of education and the provincial education MECs to “fix” the norms and standards regulations.
If the norms and standards regulations allowed to stand as they are, Noordgesig Secondary and other schools like it will have no claim on the government as far as the inappropriate structures deadline is concerned, "hence the #FixTheNorms court case", said a spokesperson for Equal Education.
The GDE’s spokesperson, Oupa Bodibe, said at the end of May 2017: “The replacement of asbestos schools and classrooms are budget related – meaning it depends on the availability of funds.
“The department’s infrastructure budget is revised on an annual basis; this includes the revision of the infrastructure project list,” he said.
“The latest revision is currently under way and the outcome of this process will determine by when the individual asbestos classrooms at existing schools will be replaced.”
But even if the law is changed to include all 243 schools, and the project list is revised, given the GDE’s track record with deadlines, it may be many years before even the 29 schools on the entirely asbestos list are replaced.