Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga watches a chess game during a play-off for school children at the launch of the Kara Chess Academy. The minister is involved in her own game of chess against school governing bodies.

It is very easy to judge Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga when she says she is prepared to change the law to force schools to take extra pupils, even when they consider themselves to be full.

She is contesting a Supreme Court of Appeal judgment which says Rivonia Primary School in Joburg was legally entitled to turn away a Grade 1 pupil because it was full. The matter is being considered by the Constitutional Court at the request of the Gauteng Education Department.

The minister says a provincial education department should be able to override a school governing body’s admission policy to ensure a child is given an education.

The minister is between a rock and a hard place. She is grappling with huge education backlogs in the townships and rural areas; middle-class schools and whether they have 35 or 40 children in their class are the least of her worries.

The impact of the “we can’t help you” attitude in many of these schools is far-reaching and is changing people’s life choices, in some cases forcing families to live apart and impacting on children’s futures.

Last year, when I tried to place my eight-year-old son at a government school after taking a job in Joburg, I came up against several Rivonia Primary-type schools.

These were former Model C schools in middle-class areas that should, I thought, just take a child if they lived in the area. That is how public education is supposed to work. But, not so in Joburg.

I had tried the private school route. Three top northern suburb independent schools wouldn’t even take my son’s name.

At one there were 64 names on a waiting list for Grade 2 and that was just when they had stopped writing them down.

Public education was our only option. First stop was the local primary school in Fairlands. We wanted to buy a house in the area but, in the meantime, we were renting in nearby Linden.

“You have to live in the community,” the secretary said to me.

“Yes, but…”

“No. You have to live here and provide proof which we will verify.”

“And, if I go to the education department?” I said. It was a veiled threat.

“That will start your relationship with the school off very badly.”

Her tone was acid.

Imagine if I was a black parent, I thought. What chance would I stand with a woman like this?

So I tried the next school. In another suburb.

The principal was tactful.

“We don’t cater for your profile any more,” she said sweetly.

“Most of our children are bussed from Soweto.”

This was ridiculous. My child and I had lived apart for three months already. He needed to be with his mom.

I was going to need help.

The next school I tried gave me the number of a woman at the Gauteng Education Department, maybe she could help me. So I made an appointment. The office was in Braamfontein, which, luckily, I remembered from my Wits University days.

Oh, and it was pure Braamfontein. Dingy, dilapidated, dirty. Up a creaking lift to the ninth floor, through filthy glass doors to a huge room with a few desks around the edges. Cables were taped over the carpet, the smell of fried chicken hung in the air, a baby was crying and a solitary man was trying to help a long line of people. The others, he told me when I reached the front of the queue an hour (and two trips to feed the parking meter) later, were visiting schools.

Alongside each desk were boxes of folders, papers stood high on small workspaces. He couldn’t help me but, on a scrap of paper, he wrote the magic name of the woman who could. After five attempts I got hold of her the next morning.

I had hit gold.

Bring in his birth certificate and the flat’s lease. She would see what she could do.

Back to Braamfontein in work time because they closed at 4pm.

She gave me the name of a school I had already visited and where I had been turned away.

“No, speak to this lady.” Another name was written on another scrap. The secretary had refused to even take my son’s name when I had called.

I went back to the school and waited for an hour in the foyer for the name on the paper. A grey-haired secretary eyed me suspiciously. She was the one who ended my call with a “no”. I could sense that. The school looked nice.

The uniforms were tartan and the many little faces who passed through the office while I sat there were black and white. Maybe this school was different.

My contact eventually arrived and gave me forms and told me she needed “an official letter” from the department. Oh boy. Another trip to Braamfontein.

Then, as I was leaving, she said: “This is nonsense, we can’t fit in any more. When the department visits next week I am going to tell the teachers to spread out the desks a bit more to make the classrooms look fuller.”

“Thanks,” I said meekly, so terribly grateful I had a place for my boy.

I went back to the department and took a bottle of jam to say thank you to the worn-out official who had helped me. She told me that there had been no infrastructure development in the Joburg northern suburbs for 25 years and that there were no plans to build more schools in the “old white” areas.

There were just too many children now and not enough places, she said. A few minutes later she had to leave to visit a school where a principal had been locked out by his teachers.

Unexpectedly, the job I had applied for in Durban came through the following week and the struggle to squeeze my child into a Gauteng public school had been for nothing.

In KwaZulu-Natal I found a spot in a private school immediately and, after five months apart, I was able to live with my little boy again.

* Carol Campbell is night news editor on The Mercury.