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In South Africa, attending school in a mud hut

Nelson Mandela went to a one-room schoolhouse. So do many South African students today.

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.”