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Thursday, October 23, 2014
- The future education of Swazi children remains uncertain, as public schools across the country have not reopened for the new term because government has not been able to pay for their upkeep. Swaziland’s cash-strapped government has yet to pay the 13.5 million dollars it owes in school fees for the Free Primary Education Programme (FPEP) and for orphans and vulnerable children. Government pays for pupils in grades one to three under FPEP, and for the entire schooling of orphans and vulnerable children.
Principals use this money to pay for support staff and other running costs of their schools, which include water and electricity, and phone bills. They also use the money to buy teaching materials, like chalk. But principals across this small landlocked country in Southern African have decided to keep schools closed until the money owed has been paid.
Over 300,000 pupils attending public schools are affected by this standoff between the Ministry of Education and Training and the Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA).
On Thursday the Swaziland National Association of Teachers joined SWAPA and took to the streets to demand the payment of fees.
“We’re desperate and frustrated,” said school principal Roger Mpapane.
Some schools have had their water and electricity disconnected. Without these essential services, said Mpapane, ablution facilities become a health hazard.
“I had no choice but to close down the school because there is no money to run it,” said David Thwala, the principal of Enyakeni High School.
Some principals complained that their support staff of secretaries, grounds people and cooks are taking them to court over unpaid salaries.
The country’s cash flow problems started in 2010 when Swaziland received 60 percent less of what it used to get from the Southern African Customs Union. The regional customs union used to contribute more than half of Swaziland’s national budget, but revenue dropped after the global economic meltdown.
The Swazi government has obtained a loan from South Africa but has not received the first instalment of 114.2 million dollars from the 342 million dollar loan. The loan is pending the finalisation of an agreement between the two countries.
And South Africa appears to be Swaziland’s only hope for a financial bailout. The International Monetary Fund’s head of delegation to Swaziland, Johannes Mongardini, announced at the start of the month that Swaziland had failed to meet the targets set by the fund because government had not cut public salaries, which could save the country 34.2 million dollars annually.
“Against this background, the mission observed that economic activity remains subdued and inflation is on the rise,” said Mongardini.
Meanwhile, pupils are concerned about their upcoming examinations.
“Our deputy principal told us to go back home but did not mention when we should return to school,” said Thembile Nkomo (13).
The grade seven pupil at Manzini Central Primary School was worried that her class will not complete their syllabus for the year before her external exams in November.
SWAPA President Charles Bennett said that while grade 10 to 12 pupils are expected to start their external examinations early in October, there was nothing principals could do to ensure they would go ahead as planned. He said this was because there was no money to buy additional materials needed for the exams.
“The lack of funds will also affect examinations because some schools need money for practical examinations,” said Bennett.
“Some schools have an enrolment of over 80 percent of orphans and vulnerable children,” added Bennett.
While government has given its assurance that the outstanding fees will be paid, Ministry of Education and Training Principal Secretary Pat Muir said closing down schools until payment was made was not acceptable.
“Schools belong to government and parents,” said Muir. “Principals have no right to close down schools under any circumstances.”
He said the ministry had requested that principals show them the bank statements of their schools as proof that they have run out of money. None of the principals have done so as yet, said Muir.
Muir promised that payment of the outstanding fees would be done by Sep. 15, but this has not been made. Meanwhile, the ministry issued a statement advising principals and parents to discuss how they can run the schools without the money.