Cold, winter rain recently fell against the mud walls of Ncunjana Primary School on a plateau above KwaZulu-Natal's Thukela River, making the cement floors cold and wet. So pupils had to write some of their exams standing up.
Normal days see most of them sitting on plastic containers and old, plastic mealie bags.
The school has only a handful of desks.
Add to this the usual rural schools' problems of children with empty stomachs; their walking more than 10 kilometres to school across rivers and mountains; many being orphans, and it hardly needs convincing that Ncunjana ranks as a very poor school.
However, the provincial education department doesn't give it that status.
Poor school has 'rich' status
Principal Glenrose Mthethwa's application for the school to have a feeding scheme, in accordance with the Quintile One status of the poorest of schools, has been met with a response it has the status of a richer school.
"… all schools that are newly registered are provisionally given a Quintile Four status," a letter dated May reads.
Ncunjani Primary came into existence six years ago when parents pooled their meagre resources. It was registered in January last year, according to Mthethwa.
Demand for schooling, leading to the school being created in the first place, led to things on the ground happening counter-current to how they are expected to happen on paper.
According to the KwaZulu-Natal education department, a school's being registered means it is given a date on which it may start to function.
"This allows the department to co-ordinate and synchronise all logistical processes in order that the relevant school can be supplied with all the required personnel and material resources prior to being declared operational," according to a department spokesperson.
"This implies that even if a school is registered in August, it does not have to start functioning then, but the school governing body is informed that the school will start to function at the beginning of the next academic year, at which point the department would have marshalled the resources required to assist the school to function effectively."
Aware that this is not how things happen in reality, the spokesperson went on to say in a statement: "Presently, however, schools do not heed this directive and start functioning at the date of registration, at which point the school is not appropriately provisioned.
"Unfortunately, this places a newly registered school in a provisional quintile to enable the school to be allocated funds and to access resources until such time that its correct ranking can be determined."
As far as the department is concerned, Ncunjana was registered in April, not January, last year and could have fallen into the current financial year.
It was reported earlier this year that the quintile system, which determines the allocation of funding to schools, is to be scrapped. By April next year it would be replaced with a simpler system based on two categories — fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools.
Meanwhile, Ncunjani Primary's principal says much of the school's needs, from building materials to paper and chalk, have been bought with money from her own coffers.
'God wants me to help'
"I was one of nine children who grew up without a mother and the only one to make matric. I believe God wants me to help poor people," says Mthethwa, who is now busy with an honours degree.
"Since January last year I have spent about R30 000 of my own money.”
Recalling how pupils had to write their exams standing, teacher Bruno Rambau says he believes things will get better. He has high hopes some or other great South African is presently being groomed in the school.
"I took photos on my cellphone so that these hard times can be remembered," he says.
"It'll be important to show the next generation what environment we were in."
In the same breath he questions why state money is often wasted.
"I understand they (the government) cannot help all at once, but sometimes I feel money is misused in useless things."
Ncunjana started through the initiative of local parents who wanted a school closer than the one that served them, 16 to 20km from their homes. That school supplied one teacher, and the parents went about building Ncunjana Primary at their own cost.
"We collected bits of money — R20 here, R100 there — but we still allowed the children of people who didn't pay to come to our school," recalls Bhekuyise Majozi, who is on the school's governing body.
One brick and three mud wall classrooms
The school has one brick classroom and three with mud walls. After hard rains, the three mud-walled classrooms need rebuilding.
Such maintenance has happened alongside other work, such as the parents clearing a patch of land for mobile classrooms they hope to get, but have not yet arrived.
At break there's no bell to announce the end to class, just the sound of children's feet shuffling to the dusty playground.
There's a noticeable silence compared with other schools at break when youthful energy unwinds. Not even a soccer match. No doubt most of them are hungry.
Some children share meals, others buy snacks and "vetkoek" from vendors. Others don't eat at all.
On a piece of flat ground above the school is another clearing where Mthethwa has plans for a vegetable garden. Alongside it runs a road she credits a local ward councillor for having constructed during the past year, along with communal water taps.
When school's over, the children start their long walk through the bush: home from their "provisionally-quintile four" school, which ranks above better-heeled schools that are above having feeding schemes.