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The excruciating wait for a spot in class is true. “Oh, all the schools are full.”

The excruciating wait for a spot in class is true. “Oh, all the schools are full.”

Across the Cape Town metro, parents and caregivers whose children have not been placed in schools are struggling to secure spaces before too much of the first term has passed.

The back-to-school rush is always a time of stress for parents and their children. There are school uniforms to find, books and stationery to buy, and first-day jitters to overcome. But for some caregivers whose children have not yet been placed in schools, the start of the academic year has been a nightmare.

On Thursday, Daily Maverick accompanied Equal Education, a nonprofit organisation that advocates for quality and equality in the South African education system, as it sought to assist caregivers in Cape Town, Western Cape, who were struggling to find places for their children.

Long queues of people were gathered outside the Western Cape Education Department’s (WCED) Metro East Education District Office in Kuilsriver as parents and caregivers looked for an explanation as to why their children had yet to be placed in schools.

“I’m here for my son. I applied online last year when the applications started, and then when the outcomes came on May 29, my child didn’t get a space. They said, ‘Oh, all the schools are full’. I went to schools to inquire, and they said I must come back to the [education] department here. When I came here, they said I must wait until December. December came, and they said I must come in January,” said Amanda Nange, a parent from Makhaza, Khayelitsha, whose son is meant to start Grade 8 this year.

When the first day of school rolled around on Wednesday, January 17, Nange’s son still did not have a place. She claimed the WCED had not responded to her emails about the situation.

“It’s heartbreaking for my son,” said Nange. “He is stressed because all his peers are at school and we applied at the same time with their parents… and then today, I’m the one who’s in this situation. So, my son is just… always locked up in his room and doesn’t want to talk to me, as if I’m the one who’s at fault. But I’m not—every day I’m trying.”

The situation was also affecting the family financially, Nange said, as to get to the district office, she needed to take money from the funds she had saved for school supplies.

“Today, I’m not leaving here without a school for my son, because Monday I want my child at school… And I’m not going to take him to any school far away, where he must take a taxi, because I don’t have money for taxis for him. He must walk to school,” she said.

“That’s what happens—they put the kids anywhere there’s space. That’s not helping us and it’s not safe… There are gangs, and there’s crime everywhere. I want to keep my kids safe, so if there’s a problem, they can quickly run home. And if we hear there’s something wrong, we can quickly run to school and go fetch our children ourselves.”

Josephine Alias, a resident of Eerste River, was at the district office on behalf of her grandson. As his mother had passed away, Alias was his main caregiver. She explained that in 2023, she had completed an application for him to join the Grade 8 class at Eerste River’s Apex High School.

“They sent me an SMS in October [2023] to say he’s successful. When I went back yesterday to go take the child to school, the list stated ‘late application’. [They said] I must come to the Department of Education,” said Alias. “How can they have the child’s name on the list for 2024, but they say it’s a late application?”

It cost Alias R120 to get to the district office, where she had been waiting for more than four hours when Daily Maverick arrived.

“I think this has been up and down for people, with parents getting frustrated, because you don’t know if they’re going to put your child at a place where you can’t afford it or [a place that’s] too far away,” said Alias.

Wallacedene

Several people were gathered outside the gates of Enkululekweni Primary School in Wallacedene, an informal settlement on the eastern outskirts of Kraaifontein, on Wednesday. They were trying to find out whether any spaces remained at the school.

Eunice Mlonzi was there with her eight-year-old grandson, Nico Barr, who is meant to be going into Grade 3. She said that she had applied for him to switch schools in October 2023 because he was being taught in Afrikaans, and she wanted him to attend an English school.

“I don’t know what to do now because they keep on saying that his application is ‘in progress’…” Time is going by. They are going to start learning, and he’s with me all the time,” she said.

Mlonzi has looked after Barr since he was a baby. She has been spending R500 of her old age pension to pay his monthly school fees, but she is now hoping to place him in a no-fee school.

“His father passed away in November… Even at that time, when his father was still alive, I didn’t take anything for the child. I have paid for him since he was a child, because I took him from the mother at the age of one month,” she said.

Caregiver Sandisa Menera outside of Enkululekweni primary in Wallacedene on 18 January, 2024. (Photo: Shelley Christians)
Caregiver Sandisa Menera will be outside of Enkululekweni primary in Wallacedene on January 18, 2024. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Another caregiver, Sandisa Menera, told Daily Maverick that she was trying to find a place for her 14-year-old nephew, who was meant to be going into Grade 8. Menera has been her nephew’s main caregiver since her sister passed away in 2014.

Menera said she applied for her nephew to be placed at a local high school but was later informed the school would not accept him. “The education department said they were going to look for a place for us when I was there last year, so I’m still waiting for them,” she said. “The Department of Education is taking too long to respond… I’ve been trying to call because I don’t have the means to go to the district  offic, but there’s been no response yet.”

While her nephew is out of school, Menera struggles to work as she does not want to leave him at home alone.

Philippi

For some parents, the struggle is not over once their children are placed in school. This is the case for Noxolo Nohaba, a parent from Philippi whose son is starting Grade 8 this year.

The teachers at the primary school Nohaba’s son attended applied for high school placements on behalf of the Grade 7 pupils. Nohaba informed them that they should apply to three schools in Philippi, close to where the family lives.

However, as 2023 drew to a close, Nohaba and several other parents had not received SMSes confirming their children’s placements for the year to come. When her son was still without a place on Wednesday, January 17, the family approached the WCED for answers.

Nohaba found out that the primary school had submitted the high school applications late, and as such, the schools in her area were already full.

“Yesterday, [the department] said my son must apply fresh, and then he will wait 10–15 days because the department is going to look at which of the schools has a space,” said Nohaba. “But if he doesn’t want to wait those 10-to-15 days, there is a school in Langa [that has a space].”

It is going to be difficult for Nohaba to send her son to the school in Langa, as it is far from their home—about 13 km away—and will involve high transport costs. However, she decided to accept the spot as her son was worried that his friends were attending school and he was not.

“[My son] said he’s going to go to this Langa school, but next year he might change,” she said.

Across the province

On Wednesday, the WCED confirmed that it was still seeking school placements for 2,636 Grade 1 and 8 learners in the Western Cape region, with the City of Cape Town Municipality facing the highest number of unplaced learners.

The department stated that by December 11, 2023, 99.43%—or 120,778—of the learners whose caregivers had applied for them to join Grade 1 and 8 classes in 2024 had been placed. Between this date and the reopening of schools, further applications were received, including 609 “extremely late” applications in the first 10 days of January. More late applications are expected to roll in over the coming weeks.

“The reality is that our system has increased, on average, by 19,000 [learners] every year. A large majority of the learners are from the Eastern Cape, seeking better education opportunities. Applying late also complicates matters,” said Bronagh Hammond, spokesperson for the department.

“We ask for patience as we make progress in placing these extremely late applicants. We cannot always predict where and when these late applicants will arrive, and this has made planning our resource allocation in advance extremely difficult.”

Members of the Equal Education team have been out in communities assisting parents and caregivers who have not secured places for their children, according to Lungelo Jonas, an organiser for the nonprofit organisation. This involves providing information and support for filling out placement forms.

“Most parents are saying they did apply last year but then didn’t get any placement for their children this year, so they are going to schools around the communities to get placement,” said Jonas. “They did go to [WCED] district offices, but there they are saying that [the parents] must sign the forms, and then they have to wait for the ten days, and most parents are voicing that they can’t wait for the 10 days.”

For those parents who do not have the means to travel to WCED’s district offices, the Equal Education Law Centre — a walk-in law clinic offering support in communities where learners’ rights are prejudiced—has plans to submit placement forms on their behalf, according to Yolisa Piliso, a junior attorney at the centre.

Speaking on the broader issue of unplaced learners, Piliso said, “The moment the child is out of school, their right to a basic education is already violated, and there is no clear process for what happens in that gap. Even if they do get placement, there is no plan for catch-up.”.

He added, “Parents are really stressed at this time of the year. Children don’t know what to do with themselves. What our clients want is for their children to be in school immediately, and we’re really trying to assist them as much as we can.” DM

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