Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

SWAZILAND: Govt Pleads for More Time On Free Primary Education

Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Apr 23 2009 (IPS) - "This demonstration is close to my heart because the cause we’re fighting for affects me directly," said Thabile Ngwenya, a teacher at a rural primary school teacher in central Swaziland.

Parents march against government's refusal to institute free primary education. Credit:  Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Parents march against government's refusal to institute free primary education. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

The widowed mother of six was among parents who took to the streets of Manzini this month to hold government to its promise of free primary school education.

Swaziland’s constitution stipulates free primary education (FPE) three years after its adoption in 2005. But four years later, government has not yet made FPE a reality, arguing it lacks sufficient financial resources to implement the initiative.

"I did not budget for school fees for my two primary school-going children because I anticipated that government would adhere to the constitution and provide free primary education as of this year," lamented Ngwenya. "Right now, I’ve been thrown out of budget because government refuses to pay."

In January, a week before the start of the first school term of the year, the Swazi were outraged when the education department announced it would not implement FPE this year and remained noncommittal when asked what year the programme will start.

Organised by civil society organisations, churches, non-governmental organisations, labour formations, student groups, teachers, parents, women movements and the business community, thousands took to the streets on Apr. 16 to protest government’s refusal to adhere to the constitution.

Protesters also demanded that the Department of Education refund parents school fees they had to pay for the first school term of this year.

This follows a court verdict in March, which confirmed the Swazi government has the constitutional obligation to provide free primary to every child from this year onwards.

Constitutional obligation

Government’s continuing disregard for FPE has caused parents to vent their anger at local schools and school authorities, in turn, to close primary schools.

"We won’t be able to reopen schools for the second term on May 19 because parents are already demanding that we refund them the deposits they paid at the beginning of the year," explained Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) secretary general Muzi Mhlanga.

He says a number of parents have already stormed schools to demand refunds from head teachers and threatened staff with violence.

"We won’t reopen schools for the second term unless government pays or provides us with security, because after this court judgment parents won’t accept expect their children to be sent home to collect school fees," Mhlanga said.

To prevent parents’ anger from escalating, government issued a statement on the eve of the protest march, promising that FPE will start next year – but only for some – not for all – primary school pupils.

According to government press secretary Macanjana Motsa, contrary to the court verdict, only pupils attending Grades One and Two will be exempt from school fees next year.

"The implementation of FPE will be carried out in an incremental manner, covering one grade each year until all the grades are included by 2015," said Motsa.

She pleaded with parents and guardians to pay school fees for this year and not expect refunds.

Motsa argued that government spends more than $58 million annually on teachers’ salaries and, since 2002, has moved steadily towards FPE, commencing with free textbooks and subsequently including free exercise books and stationery.

"The total annual cost of these teaching materials is $5.9 million," she said, adding that government, in collaboration with communities, has provided teachers with housing, furniture classrooms and laboratories.

No refunds

Motsa claims the education department is facing a number of substantial challenges. For example, to accommodate all school children in the first two grades, including the 38,000 boys and girls who so far have been unable to attend primary school because their parents cannot pay the fees, will mean government needs to employ 200 new teachers, build 160 new classrooms and 200 new teachers’ houses.

"The cost of implementation [of the FPE] by January 2010 will be substantial – $17.5 million, increasing by $8.8 million each subsequent year," said Motsa.

The Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), however, believes this is a lame excuse. FPE is achievable if it is made a budgetary priority, says SFTU secretary general Jan Sithole.

Teachers support the union’s statement, insisting they would be able to cope with additional pupils without compromising quality of education at public schools.

Should government continue to refuse implementing FPE this year, civil society organisations say they will again take to the streets next month, on May 19 and 20.

And if further protest fails, they will take government to court, Khangezile Dlamini, secretary general of the Council of Swaziland Churches, told IPS. "We are at our wits end about the FPE matter," he said.

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