South Africa

South Africa

Uitzig reaches a tipping point: We shall not be moved

Uitzig reaches a tipping point: We shall not be moved

Uitzig Secondary School in Parow Valley, which has been at the centre of a political bunfight for a number of years, has reached a deadlock. Parents and members of the governing board say they will not budge, no matter how many resources are pulled. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Nutshell

Uitzig Secondary School is in some ways a wrenchingly South African story. Children from severely economically disadvantaged backgrounds attend the school, which has managed to improve its matric pass rate by some 30 percentage points in the last decade, to over 70% in 2016. A close-knit community of parents and teachers have banded together to ensure that pupils receive the best possible care under often dangerous circumstances, and yet the facilities – while dismal – are not quite dismal enough. The school, although structurally unsound, does not qualify to be rebuilt under the acclaimed Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI). Now, some 200 students stand to be uprooted, with the attendant academic challenges, while their parents struggle to scrape together the funds for new uniforms, books, and the transition from a no-fee to a paid school.

Cleanup

Uitzig, when one first walks in, looks nothing like one might expect from the various news reports of vandalism and gang shootings. A neat reception area with a poster pledging resistance to drug abuse is on the left; pristine white prefabs, where 125 pupils continue to attend classes, are on the right. The front grounds are clean. Learners, spotting the camera, strike a pose.

Photo: Formerly a bathroom. Photo by Marelise van der Merwe

At the front of the school, parents and members of the governing body sit, greeting passers-by and ready to call out any bad behaviour. When pupils from Ravensmead High wander onto school property, mother Leonie van Staden is quick to her feet: “Come, come, come, you don’t belong here! Back to school! Thank you!”

It’s only when you head around the corner, behind a cordoned-off area, that you see the devastation: what remains of a bathroom, unrecognisable except for one ceramic foot of a toilet; another room – presumably a former classroom – with the front wall bashed clean in. Windows are smashed, bricks and rubble lie all over the ground. The school has not had electricity all year, and it has only just received water supply through one outside tap, thanks to the efforts of parents and the help of Cosatu regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich, who arranged a plumber. Ehrenreich’s involvement in fighting for the school has long been the centre of a mud-slinging match, with Ehrenreich accusing the Western Cape Education Department of deliberately allowing the school to fall into disrepair so that its closure could be justified, while WCED spokesperson Jessica Shelver accused Cosatu of trying to score cheap political points.

Photo: Parent Leonie van Staden approaches the cordoned off area. Photo by Marelise van der Merwe

The disrepair is particularly marked because the high school is next door to Tygersig Primary, which was one of the beneficiaries of the R8.2-billion ASIDI school initiative in 2015. “It’s a beautiful school,” van Staden says wistfully.

Tygersig qualified for the upgrade because it was a “plankie” school: in other words, it was made entirely out of inappropriate materials, explains ASIDI Director Albert Gumbo. Brick-and-mortar schools, even if they are structurally unsound, do not qualify. The programme, a public-private partnership which initially performed the majority of its upgrades in the Eastern Cape, has already upgraded nearly 200 schools. Its target, however, is very specific.

Uitzig has fallen through the cracks, neither privileged enough to ensure the safety of its learners nor flimsy enough to ensure the school is rebuilt. Community activist Pastor Alex Alexander has previously told media the department of education made the school a target through its failure to maintain the property; parents and members of the governing body repeated this belief to Daily Maverick on Thursday. “We asked for the [old Tygersig] building when they moved, because it was a better building than this one,” said Chairperson of the school governing body, Rosie Smith, “and we never heard from the Department of Education again. Then the next thing we saw, the building was demolished.” The land is now vacant.

Photo: The derelict remains of a former classroom. Photo by Marelise van der Merwe

On Tuesday, the SA Human Rights Commission paid a surprise visit to Uitzig High, ahead of a march by students outside Parliament to demand that the school be kept open with security and various other facilities. They handed over a memorandum to Tau Matseliso, Deputy Director General: Institutional Coordination and Development, and Clifton Frolick, Chief Director: Districts, which the Department says it “will study carefully”.

Provincial SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen and colleagues took in the stripped kitchen, smashed toilets, plundered electricity cables, as well as a trench dug by thieves who stole water pipes,” News24 reported on Tuesday. Theft is a major problem – the Western Cape Department of Education has lamented thieves carrying the building off “brick by brick” – and even the textbook storeroom has been broken into via the ceiling, with books being sold for scrap paper. When Daily Maverick visited, Equal Education was on the premises, conducting an assessment.

Photo: This used to be a classroom… Photo by Marelise van der Merwe

The school governing body had just returned from a meeting with their lawyers. “We are not going anywhere,” Smith insisted. “They [the WCED] have not given us anything on paper. We will wait until it is in black and white.”

Keeping the school open is no picnic. WCED officials have lamented that attempts to provide security have been unsuccessful, to put it euphemistically: three fences have been stolen, the governing body speaks of cables being stolen on the security guards’ watch, and earlier this week, new guards were shot at. (The governing body denies this, saying the guards were verbally threatened.) Some of the walls are flimsy enough to kick down. Director of Communications Paddy Attwell told Daily Maverick the situation had become untenable despite the Department’s best efforts.

The department has done its utmost to provide security at the school,” he said. “The fact remains that criminal elements threaten the guards almost every day, and fired on them early on Wednesday morning last week (January 18).

It is true that criminals have almost a free rein at the school, intimidating and threatening the teachers, learners and guards, while stealing almost everything that can be stolen.” Even the Tygersig upgrade took place among the sound of gunshots. Gang violence is rife in Uitsig.

Attwell says that while the department appreciates the community’s efforts in maintaining the building, basic maintenance is not the issue. “We appreciate the efforts of community members to paint classrooms and restore power and water supplies. Unfortunately, an engineer’s report has indicated that the buildings themselves are dangerous, compromising the safety of learners and teachers,” he explained.

The department is well aware of the need to provide safe teaching and learning environments, and can provide these at nearby schools. Our primary concern is the safety of learners and teachers. The claim that the WCED favours wealthy areas and neglects schools on the Cape Flats is simply untrue.”

The WCED’s maintenance budget this financial year is R373-million. The department has identified nearly 500 schools that need upgrading, including schools on the Cape Flats, and is currently implementing a programme to do so, says Atwell.

Photo: The pristine prefabs where teaching is currently taking place. Photo by Marelise van der Merwe

But for Uitzig, it appears that ship has sailed. One parent, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed they had heard a senior WCED official saying it was no longer worth spending money on the school. This could not be independently verified; however, resources are increasingly thin on the ground, possibly because the building has been identified as dangerous. Around 60 learners have already left the school, and with them a number of teachers have either left or been transferred. One volunteer teacher has been added to the staff complement, but parents are concerned that their children’s education is being compromised. At the same time, Patricia Williams, a cleaner at the school whose daughter is also a pupil, says the school is no longer being supplied with food. The governing body confirmed that two parents are providing learners with two meals daily on a voluntary basis. “The children come to school because they know there is food. They may not get food tonight at home, but there is food here. You cannot learn on an empty stomach,” she told Daily Maverick.

Deadlock

So why, if the circumstances are so bad – and if even the WCED argues it is a human rights violation to leave learners under those circumstances – are the parents and students so insistent upon staying? The WCED says it has offered alternative schooling at Ravensmead High and St. Andrew’s, but parents say it is not that simple. “This is a no-fee school and Ravensmead is not,” Smith points out. Parents say the loss of teachers has meant their children are already struggling academically, and it is difficult for learners to adjust to new schools with different subject choices. Moreover, it’s difficult for the alternative schools to accommodate large numbers of new learners – parents at Uitzig say they have been warned their children will be accepted on a trial basis.

They must first prove themselves,” explains Van Staden. The potential for wasted cost on new uniforms and books is a huge worry, she adds. “If they are forced to move now, the matrics and other learners will drop out.”

Safety is another issue, with many of the learners having further to travel through dangerous areas.

The previous principal of Uitzig, says Williams, warned the governing body that if the school were to stay open, its performance would need to improve. “It improved to above 70% pass rate. What do we have to do to stay open – shoot to 100?” she asks.

They have been uprooted again and again, but the matrics showed us,” says Smith.

For the remaining learners and parents, the school may be derelict and dangerous, but it’s the school they’ve invested in and the school they’ve got – and they are holding out for the WCED to offer them a long-term solution to stay open. “We are not going anywhere,” says Smith.

I was a learner here, my eldest was a learner here and my youngest is a learner here,” adds parent Christine Fredericks. “I will not take my child out of this school. I am satisfied with her learning abilities and her education is going well. Why must I send my child to another school? The winter is coming, it is cold and far to another school, and I don’t have money for school fees.

I am 100% behind my child.” DM

Photo: Parents and members of the governing body talk outside the school. (Photo by Marelise van der Merwe)

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