The Practice recently won an important victory in a matter in which we represent the parents and siblings of a Grade 12 learner who was tragically electrocuted in her mobile classroom, on 30 January 2017 at Geluksdal Secondary School (the School), a “no fee” paying coeducational English medium government school situated in Tsakane Township. The learner passed away as a result.
The Practice is assisting the family to claim damages from the Minister of Basic Education (Minister), and the Gauteng Education Department (Department) for the loss suffered as a result of the death of the learner. The Practice also assisted the parents to launch an application (mandamus application) to ensure that the School, the Minister and the Department attend to the infrastructural defects at the school – which pose a serious threat to the safety of the learners at the School.
On the fateful day, the learner ran into her mobile classroom during break time to get out of a heavy thunderstorm. As she entered the doorway, the 17-year-old grabbed onto the doorframe and was electrocuted. She died on the scene. Sadly, this learner’s death is not the first death or injury to occur in the school environment due to unsafe school infrastructure.
Pursuant to the death of the learner the Department instructed a private law firm to conduct an investigation into the death of the learner. After investigating the firm issued a damning report which concluded that:
- The School leadership and the Department knew that circuit breakers and earth leakage were missing in the distribution boxes in the mobile classrooms at the School after having been stolen on several occasions. They should reasonably have foreseen that harm may occur, and had a duty of care as diligens paterfamilias to protect the learners from harm, and had an obligation under the Regulations for Safety Measures at Public Schools and the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure to have replaced the safety mechanisms, and ensure that the classrooms were safe for learning and teaching. They failed in this regard.
The Report made the following recommendations, amongst others:
- That in the short term, and as a matter of urgency, the circuit breakers and earth leakage be replaced;
- That disciplinary steps be taken against implicated Department officials who failed to comply with their duties to attend to the problem;
- that the Department clarify the scope of responsibilities of various officials in the chain of command so that there is clarity about who/which unit is responsible for each part of the maintenance program;
- That security at the School be improved; and
- That community education programmes be undertaken to make the public aware of the importance of electrical safety mechanisms and the risks associated with the theft of same.
Despite numerous attempts by the Practice over a prolonged period of time to reach out to the Department regarding the implementation of the Report’s recommendations no response was forthcoming. As a result, it became necessary to approach a court in order to hold the Department accountable. In March 2021, the Practice launched court proceedings in the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court (Court), Johannesburg, seeking a structural order against the Minister, the Department and the School inter-alia and requiring them to take all steps necessary to comply with their constitutional, statutory and common-law obligations to protect learners at the School against the risk of electrocution, including:
Urgently replacing and/or repairing the circuit breakers and earth leakage equipment and ensuring that all electrical installations at the School are safe for use.
Clarifying the scope of responsibilities of all officials in the chain of command within the Department and providing clarity about who is responsible for each part of the maintenance program insofar as electrical installations are concerned.
Improving security at the School to prevent the repeated theft of circuit breakers and earth leakage equipment.
Undertaking community education programmes to make the public aware of the importance of electrical safety mechanisms and the risks associated with theft of these mechanisms.
Repairing the storm-water drainage system in the area outside the mobile classrooms.
Disciplining and holding accountable officials at the Department and the School who were responsible for the respondents’ failure to comply with their constitutional, statutory and common-law obligations.
The Practice also sought an order requiring the Respondents to file an affidavit(s) within 15 days of the court order in which they account to the Court as to the steps they have taken to comply with their constitutional, statutory and common-law obligations to protect learners at the School against the risk of electrocution.
Section27, a public interest law organisation that does admirable work in the field of basic education applied and was admitted as an amicus curiae in the matter.
Disconcertingly, no response was received by any of the Respondents even to the court application. This despite our Practice reaching out to the Department through email correspondence and telephone calls to discuss the matter. The matter was accordingly set down and heard on the unopposed roll on 7 February 2022. The Honourable Judge Senyatsi who heard the matter granted the order without hesitation.
The Practice is proud of its efforts in having the school learners guaranteed their right of access to basic education in a safe and dignified environment as envisaged by section 29 of the Constitution.