Journalists visiting a disused teachers' college in South Africa have uncovered a hoard of wrecked and discarded textbooks, including the biography of national hero Nelson Mandela, in a northern province where more than 5,000 schools are said to be starved of books.

The reporters from Beeld newspaper found thousands of books burnt, shredded and dumped outside the school buildings at the Mustec college in Seshego, Limpopo province. More books were found inside - some of them still in their plastic wrappers.

Books included Mandela's biography, copies of Shakespeare's Macbeth and manuals in English, Afrikaans and local dialects for maths, science and economics, according to the report.

The Democratic Alliance opposition party's Desiree Van der Walt said: "Public money is being spent to destroy reading material in a province where children at over 5,000 schools do not have textbooks. The delivery of books is over seven months late to these schools and a court deadline has been missed.

"Is this a government that would rather pay someone to destroy perfectly usable books than educate our children?"

The party said it had rescued a number of abandoned textbooks in good condition at a site in Polokwane. It said on its website: "[Limpopo] Education Department first denied that they were paying anyone to destroy books. They then attempted to pass off the books as unusable. The department admitted on television news that they routinely destroy books. In the context of a province where children go without books, this is nothing short of criminal."

The party has demanded answers from the Ministry of Education. The education department said it had launched an investigation into why books were burnt and abandoned.

Limpopo officials had previously acknowledged a shortage in textbooks. In May a high court ordered the department to supply schools affected by shortages by the end of June.

The education department has vowed to respect the deadline and deliver the textbooks.