PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma is being taken to court to defend his Cabinet's decision to intervene in the failing education system in the Eastern Cape.

The Cabinet invoked section 100(b) of the constitution in March last year to provide the Department of Basic Education with the legal authority to take responsibility for provincial education functions.

The Legal Resources Centre brought an application on behalf of two education organisations to the Eastern Cape High Court in Bhisho this week.

Save Our Schools and Community (Sosac) and the Catholic Institute of Education are seeking an order that the conduct of the Cabinet "constitutes a breach of its constitutional obligations".

They are arguing that it did not ensure that pupils in the Eastern Cape had access to their rights to education and basic nutrition at schools. The organisations are also asking the court to order that Mr Zuma, his Cabinet and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga put into operation a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government.

They are seeking an interdict directing the Cabinet to file a report on what actions it has taken to implement the memorandum.

Sosac co-ordinator Nomalanga Mkhize said that there was a "continuing and deepening lack of clarity" about the responsibilities and functions that had been taken over by the national government.

"It appears that the national executive has not actually taken over responsibility for the obligations in question, or if it has, it has not done so effectively," she said last week.

The Cabinet intervention followed the collapse of the Eastern Cape school nutrition programme; a lack of monitoring and evaluation; poor financial management; the dismissal of 4000 temporary teachers; and the breakdown of pupil transport schemes.

These programmes were reinstated, and Ms Motshekga announced in May that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with the Eastern Cape government that would allow long-term reforms of the finances and management of its education department. But the "broad-based" nature of the memorandum of understanding had left responsibilities unclear and decisions made in the province were "open to challenge", Sarah Sephton, director of the Legal Resource's centre's Grahamstown office, said on Wednesday.

This had been "disastrous" for teaching and learning, she said, and held nobody accountable for decisions.

The suspension of the school transport programme at the beginning of last year had resulted in more than 100000 pupils having to walk to school, Ms Mkhize said in her affidavit. This had cut down on learning time, exhausted pupils and made them potential victims of accidents or crime.

The four week go-slow at the beginning of this year had a "profoundly negative impact" on pupils, Ms Mkhize said.

Eastern Cape education superintendent-general Modidima Mannya dug in his heels over the reinstatement of temporary teachers at the beginning of the year, arguing that there were enough permanent teachers to meet pupils' needs.

As an example, Ms Mkhize mentioned two Grahamstown schools - situated 2km apart - one with 27 teachers and 1068 pupils and the other with 14 teachers and 100 pupils, to illustrate the problem.

The application is set to be heard on March 20.

gernetzkyk@bdfm.co.za