Swaziland
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TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE FOR MPS

The outgoing Members of Parliament (MPs) did not do much to persuade government to increase the free primary education (FPE) grant paid to schools for each child.

For a good 10 years or so, the grant for what is known as FPE stood at only E560 per child. Head teachers kicked and screamed for a review of this allowance, only for government to turn a deaf ear. This resulted in many parents failing to enjoy the benefits of what is referred to as free education in Eswatini. They found themselves compelled to pay top-up fees to schools, as head teachers complained that the money received from government was not enough to fulfil all their financial obligations. In some schools, parents paid up to E1 300 per child as top-up fees. With limited funds, schools found themselves unable to pay salaries for support staff like secretaries, cooks and night watchmen.

In the current team of MPs, there are some who have been in the august House for a decade or longer. Others came on board in 2018. They have one thing in common, though: Apart from making statements now and again, condemning government for making a mess of the FPE programme, they did not do much to ensure there was change. Amid all the hue and cry, government took its time and only reviewed the FPE grant this year. Finance Minister Neal Rijkenberg announced in February 2023 that government would be increasing the FPE grant per learner. Implementation of the revised fees was to commence at the beginning of the fiscal year 2023/2024 at a 20 per cent level of adjustment.

budget

While the total budget for this purpose was estimated at E45.6 million, the truth is that each child was now entitled to a maximum of about E670. In the new grant payment arrangement, the two lower grades still get the E560. The amount increases according to levels, with those in Grades V and VI getting E640. The maximum amount of E670 per child is only awarded to Grade VII pupils. That is why some people are not impressed by the recent display of enthusiasm from MPs, especially in the House of Assembly. Some of us are not excited by their call for free secondary and high school education in the kingdom. Apart from it being a case of `too little, too late’ this suggestion does not seem to be borne out of thoroughly researched data.
One cannot fault those who believe it is just a gimmick to win the hearts of the electorate, now that fresh elections are on the cards.

The mover of the motion on free secondary and high school education was to be Manzini North MP Macford Sibandze, seconded by his Kwaluseni counterpart Sibusiso Mabhanisi Dlamini. The legislators want Minister of Education and Training Lady Mabuza, in consultation with Cabinet and development partners, to look into the possibility of making secondary and higher education free in Eswatini, as envisaged in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. MPs are worried about the high number of Grade VII graduates who cannot proceed to secondary school as a result of failure by some parents to afford the fees charged by various schools.

practical

It may have been more practical for the legislators to move a motion for the subsidisation of fees at secondary high school. This could ease the burden on many parents who cannot afford the high amounts charged by schools as fees. I am reminded of the sad story of a widowed woman who called the national radio station at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to complain that she was unable to afford the E6 000 deposit for each of her two children who were to begin Form I. This was amid the drama around the school fees refund to parents who paid thousands of Emalangeni, only for schools to close abruptly, in an effort to prevent the spread of the then wanton coronavirus. For several months, children did not go to school.
Even then, Parliament’s silence was deafening as head teachers calmly defied the Education minister’s directive to refund parents.

That said, the motion on free secondary and higher education also had a puzzling component, at least as far as I am concerned. It sought to compel the minister to apprise the House on progress made in this regard, on a quarterly basis. Now, we are all aware that the current team of legislators is on its way out. His Majesty the King is expected to dissolve Parliament any time from now. Are the motion movers going by the assumption that they will definitely be re-elected into Parliament, come September 29, 2023? If not, how do they hope the minister will give them updates every three months? Of course, I am alive to the fact that the office of the minister does not cease to exist with the end of term of office of the current one. The next Parliament can also follow up on this matter. However, if public opinion is anything to go by, chances of most of the current MPs getting re-elected run from slim to zero.

disappointed

Voters were disappointed when this bunch failed to properly address issues around the socio-political unrest. Even as we speak, their opinion and aspirations on this volatile matter, including the arrest of their colleagues in Mthandeni Dube and Bacede Mabuza, is not known. They also watched as prices of goods and services shot up exponentially and the health system deteriorated. Almost all public health facilities constantly run out of critical medical drugs and other supplies. These MPs did not lift a finger as many of the country’s roads damaged by heavy rains remained in an extremely bad state. There is a growing argument out there, to the effect that construction of roads is not the purview of MPs. However, the Operating Guidelines for Effective Tinkhundla Administration and Development indict them. These guidelines provide that, among other things, MPs should ‘mobilise resources and development projects to benefit the constituency in improving the state of their lives’. There has never been a better developmental tool than an excellent road network.