Thursday 13 June

SECTION27 joins case about unsafe school infrastructure

Education authorities must be held accountable for learner safety and school infrastructure, says SECTION27.

28 October 2020, Johannesburg – SECTION27 was yesterday admitted as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the Local Division of the Johannesburg High Court in the Mahudu and Others v. Minister of Basic Education and Others case, which is about a matric learner who died tragically because of unsafe electrical wiring at Geluksdal Secondary School. Following our work in the Michael Komape case, where we advocated for safe school sanitation infrastructure, SECTION27 has received several complaints and queries related to death and injury in the school environment. 

To ensure that each and every learner is safe, it is essential to ensure that school infrastructure meets the minimum benchmarks for school safety, and that public officials in every level of the basic education system are held accountable for their obligations to keep children safe.

The tragedy in this instance occurred in 2017. Geluksdal Secondary School was plagued by vandalism and theft due to a lack of adequate security on the school premises. As a result, circuit breakers and earth leakage equipment were repeatedly stolen from the school. This, along with poor maintenance and loose wiring, made school buildings unsafe. Despite being informed of the electrical problems at the school by the school principal, the circuit, district and provincial education authorities did nothing. During a heavy thunderstorm a matric learner at the school was running barefoot and because of the wiring problems, was electrocuted when they touched the metal doorframe of a mobile classroom. They died on the scene.

Both perimeter security and safe electrical power supplies are required by law as per the Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure. The continued existence of unsafe school infrastructure – which is directly responsible for the deaths and injuries of countless learners around the country – is therefore unlawful and unacceptable.

Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr Inc is representing the family of the deceased in a case against the Department of Basic Education, the MEC and Head of Department for Basic Education in Gauteng as well as the school governing body and principal of Geluksdal Secondary School in which the family is claiming damages arising out of their tragic loss. The family’s claims include a claim for constitutional damages as well as claims based in the common law of delict as appropriately developed in line with section 39(2) of the Constitution. SECTION27 has been admitted as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the case.

Our intervention seeks to strengthen the law holding public officials accountable for the failure to ensure the school environment is safe. In our submissions:

  • We aim to develop the common law to recognise of grief under the head of damages of pain and suffering, alternatively, as a separate and substantive head of damages in accordance with section 39(2) of the Constitution;
  • We discuss the nature of the legal duties of school staff to ensure the safety of learners on school premises, and the meaning of their responsibilities to act “in loco parentis” while doing so; and
  • We will highlight to the court a growing pattern of neglect for learner safety, unsafe school infrastructure and an absence of accountability by public officials, resulting in the violations of learners’ rights and culminating in tragedy. In line with evidence of such systemic neglect we will make legal submissions on the need for the Court to vindicate these constitutional violations, in addition to damages in delict so as to hold public officials accountable for such systemic neglect.

Lack of safe school infrastructure is a pervasive problem, for which systemic constitutional redress is urgently needed. This is because a safe learning environment is part and parcel of the right to basic education.

[ENDS].

For media queries, contact Julia Chaskalson (chaskalson@section27.org.za or 0834402674).


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