Crash course in chaos shocks the minister.

Crash course in chaos shocks the minister.

In an effort to demonstrate a more robust commitment to education, President Thabo Mbeki had ordered schools to open on time on the first day of term, and to begin classes immediately.

But when Mr Asmal arrived at Meadowlands he found pupils milling in the street, empty classrooms and teachers absent.

Chairs and desks left outside through the Christmas holidays were buried in long grass. Almost everyone commented on the stench from the toilets.

The minister marched unannounced into the office of the vice-principal, William Maumela, and demanded an explanation.

Mr Maumela said the school had been without a headmaster for three years.

The education minister pledged to dock a day’s pay from the missing teachers.

Crash course in chaos shocks the minister.

Mr Asmal then insisted on checking the storeroom for stationery and text books. The cupboard was almost bare. The stationary was there, although the minister was upset to find it still packed in boxes instead of being distributed to the pupils.

There were no textbooks. Mr Maumela said teachers had failed to retrieve them from pupils the previous term.

Mr Asmal asked the vice-principal to call an assembly. The minister told about 100 pupils that he was “disappointed and shamed” at the “appalling” conditions at the school.

“This is nonsense. I will not tolerate it,” he said.

But after what amounted to an apology to the pupils, Mr Asmal told them that South African children had been deprived of education for many years and they should not throw away opportunities, however difficult the conditions.

Then the minister called a staff meeting. He blamed the 20 teachers present for a lack of discipline and organisation: “Obviously, not having a principal to lead the school creates problems. But you need to take the initiative and put the school back in order.”

The teachers’ union protested that the minister got the wrong impression because he came in lunch hour. His visit began at 11am.