BASIC Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Tuesday committed to replacing 200 "inappropriate schools" and providing 873 schools with proper toilets over the next four years, as part of an accelerated drive to bring school infrastructure up to standard.

Twenty-five percent of the target must be reached by the end of 2013-14, she said.

More than half of the schools are in the Eastern Cape.

The commitment follows a visit last week to the Eastern Cape by a group of eminent people hosted by rights group Equal Education, some of whom could not contain their tears at the horrifying state of school buildings and toilet facilities in the province. It also follows attempts at litigation to force provincial educational departments to comply with minimum norms and standards.

Ms Motshekga was speaking at the basic education budget vote in Parliament, in which priorities for the year are mapped out, together with budget allocations. She said that school infrastructure was "an area of great concern" to which the department had "paid serious attention over the past year".

A "comprehensive infrastructure investment plan" was being finalised by the department, which would close "once and for all the chapter on potholes and hanging ceilings in classrooms."

Provinces would receive R6,6bn during this financial year while an additional R1,9bn would be allocated to the Accelerated Infrastructure Delivery Initiative to deal specifically with backlogs.

But promises to eradicate backlogs in school infrastructure go back as far as the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, who in 2004 promised to eliminate mud schools and children learning under trees within a year.

While Ms Motshekga insisted there had been progress made over the past year — spending on infrastructure had improved; the matric pass rate had reached 73.9%; and the number of matriculants eligible to study for a BA had doubled — opposition parties were vocal about the litany of failures in the system.

Democratic Alliance spokes-woman for basic education Annette Lovemore said the minister should "admit failure" and the state of education could best be described as "tragic".

Ms Lovemore, referring to the results of recent country-wide assessments, said that only half of grade 3 learners were literate and that only 13% of grade 9 learners could achieve a 50% pass mark in mathematics. "Despite a budget of R17.6bn and a slew of policies, your education system does not work. Admit failure. Until you do, you will never make the massive changes that are required for this country to succeed," she said.

Pieter Groenewald, the Freedom Front Plus’s parliamentary leader, said Ms Motshekga was "misleading herself" if she thought last year’s matric results were an accomplishment.

"The minister brags with the matric results and we are glad with her and congratulate the matriculants. But what is the reality? It is that of the 1,130,659 learners who had started grade 1 in 2001, only 45% (511,152) wrote the matric exams last year.

"Only 33% (377,829) passed and of these, only 12% (135,966) obtained a university exemption," Mr Groenewald said.

© BDlive 2013