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Free education in Swaziland

Dreams of Free Education Deferred
Mantoe Phakathi

MBABANE, Jan 26 (IPS) - Ten-year-old Tembuso Magagula sat outside her classroom with her shoulders hunched against the cold today, tears streaming from her eyes. Her long-awaited first day of school had turned into a nightmare.

Magagula expected to start grade one this year - four years late - as a beneficiary of the Free Primary Education programme which started on Jan. 26 in all public schools. 

But the head teacher at Qedusizi Primary School, Petros Zwane, was not in a compromising mood. Government may be paying the fees for grades one and two, but Zwane sent home every child who did not arrive in school uniform. 

"Uniform is very important, even for those under the FPE," insisted Zwane. "Government should buy uniforms for destitute children because I will not allow them into the classroom." 

A sobbing Magagula said, "I've never been to school because my mother could not afford the fees. She said she doesn't have money for the school uniform." 

Her mother is a street vendor in Swaziland's administrative capital, Mbabane; the whereabouts of her father are unknown. Magagula was not the only child in distress as the school year began. 

Government not ready 

Hundreds of Swazi children eager to take advantage of FPE were turned away as schools opened because, government is not coping with the administrative challenges of implementing free education. 

The Swazi constitution adopted in 2005 committed the country to provide free primary education to all within three years. Government has delayed implementation, citing a lack of funds, but a 2009 court order finally forced to bring in FPE; the education ministry is starting with the first two grades and adding one grade each year until 2015. 

Although the authorities insisted that all was ready for the new school year to begin, most schools did not have enough classrooms or teachers to cater for the influx of pupils. 

"There is no way I can keep pupils in the school when there isn't enough space," said the deputy head teacher of St Mark's Primary, Thandi Mkhonta. 

The school has registered 350 pupils for grade one yet it has a capacity of only 180. Still more would-be students were turned back until government provides the promised mobile classrooms and additional teachers. 

The situation was the same in many other schools in Mbabane, where children who were unable to attend school last year turned up to benefit from the FPE: places went to those who turned up early, the latecomers will have to wait until further notice. 

"Inspectors came this morning to assess the situation and they realised that we need more classrooms and teachers," said Mkhonta. "So far we need four mobile classrooms." 

No one knows how long will it take government to provide the necessary infrastructure and personnel. 

Needs not fully assessed 

Government has so far constructed 89 classrooms across the country and requested funds for 225 more teachers from the civil service commission. The minister was not sure however if these teachers would be enough, as pupils continue to register on the instructions of the minister of education, Wilson Ntshangase. 

The minister told IPS that relatively few parents registered their children for grades one and two in advance, which is why government had to allow registrations to go on even as schools opened. 

"Government will provide schools that are in dire need of classrooms with movable classrooms while the proper structures are constructed," said Ntshangase. 

"If (the additional) teachers are not enough then we might also recall retired teachers," said Ntshangase. 

Shifting costs 

And in some schools it turns out free education is not exactly free. Parents of Motshane Primary school, some 15 kilometres from Mbabane, complained that while they are not paying for the first two grades, the head teacher has dramatically increased fees for the last five grades. 

Khosi Dlamini, whose two children are in their first and third year at the same school finds herself in a fix. While she pays nothing for her child in grade one she, she says the fees are too high for the older one. 

"Last year, parents were paying half the amount," said Dlamini. 

The head teacher, Lucky Zwane, did not deny that fees have shot up at his school. He said government had fixed fees at a very low rate for FPE and parents of the children in the rest of the classes would have to foot the bill for the school to function properly. 

"Government pays 560 emalangeni (approximately $75) for each child in FPE. That is not enough because last year a grade one pupil was paying E778," said Zwane. 

Zwane said what further strained the school's budget is that out of 418 pupils enrolled at the school so far, 112 are beneficiaries of government's OVC Fund. Government pays just $43 for orphans and vulnerable children for each child, no matter what grade they're in. 

"Government does not consider the school's budget when paying for OVCs and FPE," said Zwane. 

Sipho Shongwe, the deputy chairperson for the Swaziland Principals Association, concurred with Zwane, arguing that government did not consult head teachers when working out the amount paid for each child under FPE. 

"We don't know how government arrived at the E560," said Shabangu, adding: "All we were told was that the World Bank did a study and arrived at this figure." 

Where is the money? 

Faced with financial constraints after the minister of finance, Majozi Sithole, called for a 14 percent budget cut across the board, FPE added a further strain to the government's budget because only a few donors are forthcoming to assist. Save for the European Union which donated about $26 per child and the United Nation's Children's Fund which donated study material, the government must foot the bill alone. 

Donor assistance for education has been difficult to come by because the Kingdom is classified as a middle-income country, unlike Malawi, for example, where FPE is funded by donors. 

While the United Nations Development Programme reports that 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, Swaziland's per capita income is around $2,500 - preventing its formal classification as a less developed country by multilateral development banks. A small group, including the royal family, controls an enormous proportion of the country's wealth. 

The government's pleas for patience while it finds money for the programme do not convince its critics. Teachers' unions have stated it is a matter of priorities rather than poverty; in November 2009, the Council of Swaziland Churches called on members of parliament to block a supplementary budget, arguing that funds were being directed to non-priority areas such as defence. 

Last year's court order has won a partial victory with the waiving of fees for the first two classes in 2010: continued pressure from parents and teachers on the government to fully fund free education may yet give one little girl the chance to shout "Present, teacher!" when the name Tebuso Magagula is read out.