THE National Teachers Union (Natu) has taken the KwaZulu-Natal department of education to court to demand that it nullify and investigate tenders awarded for the National School Nutrition Programme.

On Thursday in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg, Judge Hamilton Cele granted the department a week’s postponement to allow it to file opposing documents to Natu’s application.

In court papers, the union said it had evidence of irregularities in the awarding of the tenders and that companies given tenders last year had failed to deliver at some schools, leaving thousands of pupils without meals.

KwaZulu-Natal is not the only province to have problem associated with the nutrition programme. In 2011 it was halted in some parts of the Eastern Cape after the provincial department of education’s funds ran dry. In Limpopo, the programme ran into trouble when the province went bankrupt, requiring the Cabinet to put five departments, including education, under administration.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the programme targets all learners in the most poverty-affected schools. There are about 1.5-million pupils in quintiles 1-3 primary schools and about 370,600 pupils in quintiles 1-2 secondary schools in the province.

The country’s schools fall into five categories, or quintiles, based on their levels of poverty, with quintile 1 the poorest.

Natu vice-president Allen Thompson said: "Earlier this year it was brought to Natu’s attention — through members of a number of school governing bodies together with the contractors — that there had been a number of irregularities arising out of the school feeding programme.

"Tenders were awarded to companies that are not registered with the South African Revenue Service or companies that are not black economic empowerment compliant. Some of these companies managed to register themselves after the tenders were awarded but the department seems not to be interested in taking action."

KwaZulu-Natal department of education spokesman Muzi Mahlambi said it would oppose the application as it was confident the court would rule in its favour because "we are a corruption-free department".

"If there are individuals who are involved in corrupt practices, they are not doing it on behalf of the department and when information comes to us we will deal with them," he said.

"Having said that, we have trust in the courts and believe they will arrive at a fair decision, and that is why we needed more time to prepare ourselves for the case."