In South Africa, attending school in a mud hut

Photo caption: Thousands of rural South African students must attend school in sub-standard, mud-walled schoolhouses. This picture shows a basic South African classroom, but there are hundreds of schools that do not even reach this level. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images) 

QUNU, South Africa — Nelson Mandela’s first day of school was in a makeshift classroom in a mud-walled hut.

Mandela, then 7 years old, was the first person in his family to go to school, and his father dressed him for the big day, cutting off a pair of his pants at the knees to make them child-sized and then cinching them around his son’s waist with a piece of string.

“I must have been a comical sight, but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father’s cut-off trousers,” Mandela recalled in his autobiography.

The schoolhouse, Mandela wrote, “consisted of a single room with a Western-style roof,” perched on a hill overlooking the village of Qunu. Visitors to the area today can still see the ruins of the collection of rondavels — traditional round huts — that formed Mandela’s missionary-run primary school.

“It was used as a classroom during the week, and a church on the weekend,” said Zimisele Gamakulu, a guide at the nearby Nelson Mandela Museum, which stands in what was once an open field where young Mandela would herd cattle with other boys. “This was his playing ground."

More than eight decades later, students in Qunu now attend class in a tidy modern school that was built next to the future South African president’s mud schoolhouse. But while Mandela’s old primary school has become a relic visited by tourists, some students in South Africa still go to class in mud and straw structures much like the one that Mandela would have attended in the mid-1920s.

In the Eastern Cape province, which includes the poverty-stricken area where Mandela grew up, there are still 395 mud schools — down from 939 in 2004 — and there are many more in other poor, rural parts of the country. The rough schools persist despite years of promises by various levels of government to eradicate what the Eastern Cape education department calls “inappropriate structures.”

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After a few years at his mud school, Mandela moved on from Qunu and was sent to what was, at the time, one of the best boarding schools open to black African students. But even today, some South African students must see out their high-school years in tiny, uncomfortable mud-walled classrooms.

Students and teachers complain that mud schools are freezing cold in the winter, overheated in the summer and uncomfortable when it rains. They have poor sanitation, with no toilets or running water, and often have no electricity, so children must squint to read the blackboard — if there even is one.

Earlier this year, seven schools in the Eastern Cape’s Oliver R. Tambo district filed a lawsuit against the national, provincial and local governments, claiming that they had failed to provide proper educational infrastructure. Six of the schools involved in the lawsuit have mud-walled classrooms, and one has walls made of cinderblocks. All face shortages of clean water, desks and chairs.

A parent of three children at one of the schools said that students in Grade R (South Africa's equivalent of kindergarten) don't even have a classroom as a result of damage to the school caused by storms.

Instead, classes are held in a community member's borrowed home — when it is convenient, said Mbhopeni Sikiti in an affidavit to the Eastern Cape High Court.

“When owners need the room or rondavel they have provided to the school for other purposes, for example to store crops after harvest or when a family member returns home to visit, the principal is forced to seek alternative arrangements,” he wrote. “At the time of signing this affidavit, the Grade R learners are accommodated in a person’s ‘flat’ made of mud bricks approximately one kilometer from the school."

The South African constitution states “Everyone has the right to a basic education,” and this guarantee has formed the basis of the schools' legal action. Education is highly unequal across the country, with schools in cities tending to offer a better education compared to those in rural areas that have far fewer resources.

Modidima Mannya, the Eastern Cape education department’s superintendent general, blamed the “poor school infrastructure” inherited from the former “homelands” — a system of tribally-segregated puppet states for black South Africans set up by the apartheid government. After the end of apartheid, the Eastern Cape region had one of the most unequal education systems in the country.

“Sixteen years is nothing due to the insufficient budget allocation yearly,” Mannya said.

However, the department recently said it would step up its efforts to improve the infrastructure of impoverished schools, and unveiled a plan to close 100 mud-walled schools a year. The cost of rebuilding all the mud schools in the Eastern Cape is estimated to be at least $590 million. Construction of new schools is expected to begin in April, with students temporarily being moved into host schools.

“We’ve let the problem fester for too long,” said Wilmot James, the shadow national education minister for the opposition Democratic Alliance party, in a critical report after touring some of the country’s poorest schools. “The fact is, South Africa's children deserve better.”