We all understand that it is not only the responsibility of parents or guardians but also the government's responsibility to enhance the learning capacity of learners. Children's active learning is effective when they are not hungry and suffering from an imbalanced non-nutritional diets. Providing meals to needy learners not only significantly heightens their participation during lessons, it also alleviates short-term hunger and provides an incentive for children to attend school regularly and punctually.1 It is reported that since the inception of the Primary School Feeding Schemes in 1994 thousands of South African children from the poorest schools across the country have benefited from this scheme.2
Why we submitted PAIA requests
We submitted access to information requests, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA), (PAIA requests) to the National Department of Basic Education and to all Provincial Departments of Education, in 2016. This was in order to gain a better understanding of the management of (and all arrangements associated with) the National Schools Nutrition Programme, and to establish whether the programme is being implemented effectively by participating schools. The PAIA requests asked for copies of records with information relating to implementation of primary schools' feeding schemes for the previous two years.
Four out of ten requests receive responses
Regrettably, only three provincial departments have even acknowledged receipt of the PAIA requests, and only the National Department of Basic Education, the Gauteng Department, Mpumalanga Department and the Western Cape Department of Education have responded to our requests within the prescribed statutory time-frame.3 The nature of responses from the Mpumalanga Department and the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education were not satisfactory at all and lacked compliance with the law in that certain parts of the requested records were withheld (not released) and no grounds for refusal were cited in support of the withholding. This despite PAIA providing that when access is refused to a record with information, or a part of a record with information, reasons for the refusal must be provided, and the reasons must cite the section of PAIA relied on for the refusal.
Challenging non-responsiveness at the initial stage
The failure of the other six provincial departments of education, to provide responses within the prescribed statutory time-frame, is by law deemed to constitute a refusal of the requests. PAIA provides requesters with a right to challenge, through a so-called "internal appeal", such deemed refusals. In the interest of ensuring this information is made public, and to ensure better compliance with PAIA, SAHA did submit internal appeals against all six deemed refusals. PAIA provides that the Information Officers4 of the departments concerned are obliged to forward to forward the internal appeal to the so-called "Relevant Authority". The relevant authority is the highest political figure responsible for the relevant government department, so in the case of provincial departments, that would be the relevant Member of Executive Council (MEC). The internal appeal submitted to the Relevant Authority must be accompanied by the Information Officer's reasons for failing to respond to the request. The Information Officers are further obliged by the provisions of PAIA to notify SAHA of outcome of the decisions taken by the MECs of the respective provincial department of education. It seems however that some public officials are still turning a blind eye to their statutory duties, as SAHA received no responses to our internal appeals, despite multiple reminders requesting acknowledgement of receipt and provision of copies of the decision on the internal appeals. As with the initial stage of the request, their failure to provide SAHA with copies of the MECs' decisions, within the set timeframe, also, by law, means that the MECs' are deemed to have dismissed the appeals.
Challenging non-responsiveness at the appeal stage
PAIA also provides for remedies against active or deemed dismissal of appeals against PAIA decisions. Unfortunately the most affordable avenue for challenging such decisions, an appeal to the Information Regulator, is not yet possible, as the Office of the Information Regulator is not yet set up. The only other avenue is a court challenge, unfortunately this is prohibitively expensive.
Access to information, access to food
Sadly, with only 44% of these requests responded to, it is not possible to independently verify the success of the NSNP. This is further impeded by the failure of three government departments that did provide some information to give full access to the requested information. What has been released is however somewhat instructive. It is our hope that these departments will realise how advantageous it would be for them to show off what they have achieved with this programme by, not only providing full access to this information, but by doing so proactively; as the Western Cape Provincial Department of Education has already done with respect to their policy on the implementation of the NSNP.
1. See "The best of the NSNP" document available at: http://www.education.gov.za/Portals/0/Documents/Publications/NSNP%20The%20Best%20of%20NSNP.pdf?ver=2014-06-30-151104-393 accessed 20170612.
2. See "The best of the NSNP" document (n1) above.
3. PAIA provides that a decision must be provided within 30days of the submission of a request. See section 25 of PAIA.
4. PAIA provides that the highest executive official within a government department (the Director-General or equivalent) is the "Information Officer" of that department.