Protests in Vuwani, Limpopo have taken a terrible toll on the community, with school children most affected. But can an intervention by President Jacob Zuma avoid history repeating itself and instead lead to progress, and reduce the the threat of further carnage? By GREG NICOLSON.
In February 2015, pupils in Malamulele, Limpopo had not attended school in weeks. Protesters had, once again, led a shut-down, demanding their own municipality separate from the Thulamela municipality. The Limpopo Mirror described a community living in fear. Schools that continued to operate needed protection from parents or resorted to teaching under trees. Schools were burnt during the protest, fuelled by a perception in Malamulele that the municipality was prioritising Vhavenda rather than the Vatsonga areas.
More damage was still to come. Malamulele got its own municipality, but the violence spiralled into Vuwani.
There’s hope the protests in Vuwani, which for two years have caused major upheaval, might finally come to an end this weekend after an intervention from President Jacob Zuma. The toll has been enormous. Schools were burnt to ashes. Pupils missed months of classes. People have died. A poor community has suffered in the nexus of history, fear and ambition.
For over a decade Malamulele residents had raised objections against the area’s incorporation into Thulamela municipality. In 2015, their growing frustration led to protests and a shut-down. Schools and state infrastructure were set alight. Eventually, the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) decided to create a new municipality for Malamulele, incorporating areas in Makhado and Thulamela.
It wasn’t long before Vuwani residents protested their move from Makhado to the new municipality. They used the same tactics that were successful in Malamulele, but the toll was much higher. Protests against the municipal merger began in July 2015. Schools became a target for arson the next year.
Pro-Makhdao spokesperson Nsovo Sambo, a leader in Vuwani’s protests, said the change could not be accepted. Vuwani was being incorporated into a municipality with few resources, after little consultation.
Vuwani’s protest escalated in May 2016. The community had no luck reversing the demarcation decision finding no sympathy through the courts or the MDB. All services and businesses, except emergency services, were pressured to close. Roads were barricaded. There were violent skirmishes between protestors and police. Government infrastructure was targeted. Stores were only allowed to open on weekends, leading employers and workers fearing for their livelihoods. The August municipal elections were also affected as protesters boycotted the vote.
The education system saw the most serious damage. Starting from May, over 20 schools were burnt and pupils missed months of classes. In October, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told Parliament it would cost an estimated R462-million to repair, renovate and rebuild affected schools. Her department said 52,827 pupils from primary and secondary schools were affected while they were intimidated and prevented from attending 102 Vuwani schools. There were reports of pupils fearing intimidation, trying to attend schools without uniforms, and parents rallying to save schools.
According to the 2015-16 police crime statistics there was a 9.4% increase in malicious damage to property in Limpopo because of the attacks on schools. The SABC’s then chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng even banned the broadcasting of footage of destruction of government property. The decision was made in the wake of the Vuwani protests but was later overturned.
Police were criticised for their response to the protest, but a SAPS case study citing interviews with residents provides an explanation of the complexity of what was behind the protests against joining the new municipality. There was a fear of change and worry about contests for government positions. Protesters said the new municipality, dubbed LIMP345, would be based further away and have little knowledge of Vuwani. They cited a lack of consultation in the MDB’s decision to change the demarcations, and feared there’d be a reduction in services and job opportunities.
A number of concerns related to ethnic tensions. Vuwani is predominantly Vhavenda and was being incorporated into and governed from Malamulele, predominantly Vatsonga. When Malamulele protested and won its own municipality, Vuwani’s concerns were similar, but inversed.
The outspoken Dr Thivhilaeli Nedohe, a former Independent Elections Commission official in Limpopo, said the Vuwani protests were caused by the government’s failure to address differences in the region. Giving Malamulele its own municipality after protests created a precedent, he said. “This is a tribalistic mess which President Zuma created by executing poor and unsound judgement. Vuwani people felt that President Zuma imposed the new boundaries on them to solve a tribalistic problem. They also felt entitled to their tribalistic views as well.”
In its investigation into the targeting of schools during protests, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which launched an inquiry after the Vuwani attacks, highlighted the problem of leaders not listening to communities. “The investigative hearing noted that the challenges of unemployment and poverty that face South Africa have created high levels of frustration among young people. The extent of frustration does not appear to be sufficiently recognised by people in all levels of leadership,” said the SAHRC’s report. It also said the attitudes of protesters burning schools might show a disregard for education as a means of advancement.
Section27 staff, who have worked for years on the region’s education issued, noted the extent of the challenges in the area: “While some schools are showing signs of development and progress, others reflect the state of poverty as a heart-breaking reality. The 2016 provincial budget on education noted that there is a shortage of 41,000 toilets, of which more than eight out of 10 (83%) are pit toilets that need to be replaced. The budget further acknowledges that there is a staggering shortage of over 10,000 classrooms across the province.”
After the schools were burnt, donations and state resources were devoted to ensuring pupils could study. Intensive camps were established for matric pupils to catch up. Parolees were sent to help clean up schools. A recent department of education briefing said “the impact on learner performance was significant across all grades”. Despite the protests, Vuwani’s matric results were extremely impressive, but the department of basic education noted a challenge – exceptional resources were devoted to the region in the wake of the disaster, leading to a situation where, like in Malamulele the year before, pupils were able to excel, perhaps at the expense of other regions.
The challenges linger. A visit from the National Council of Provinces select committee on education and recreation in March painted a dire situation. Its report said “infrastructure in the schools visited was not good even before the buildings were torched”. It added, “All the schools visited had no water as they are using boreholes which cannot work because schools had no electricity after the burning.” The committee said work must be done so no classes are conducted under trees.
When another school was burnt in April this year, it looked as though Vuwani’s disaster, and all the complications that came with it, would continue. The Pro-Makhado group leading the protests decided to embark on another shutdown after the MDB rejected its latest appeal. It wouldn’t engage either the provincial or national task teams working on the matter saying the trust in the teams was broken after government failed to meet past commitments. Two people recently died in a road accident linked to the shutdown. The overwhelming feeling from protest leaders was that if Malamulele could achieve its goals through protest, why couldn’t Vuwani?
Stakeholders, however, are confident Zuma could provide a way forward after meeting with Vhavenda King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana this week. Ramabulana has supported Vuwani’s cause and he and the President are due to address the community this weekend.
“We did not request that particular municipality. We were fine under Makhado municipality and to return to Makhado,” said the Pro-Makhado group’s spokesperson Sambo. He was confident the weekend’s address would find a solution to the troubles, but said protests would continue if Zuma doesn’t make sincere commitments.
Limpopo government spokesperson Phuto Seloba said, “We are optimistic that the two engaging with the communities will bring positive resolutions.” He added: “We’re confident that the president coming here will see a clear breakthrough and we’ll have stability in the area.” It’s one of the first times protestors and government appear to have agreed and there are high expectations Zuma will announce a plan for Vuwani to return to Makhado over the weekend. The Pro-Makhado group even cancelled a march set for Friday.
The immediate question is whether government will assist Vuwani in having its demarcations changed. The more difficult question is how the state will reform the demarcations without history repeating itself, and without more schools burnt. DM
Photo: A woman looks on as a police Nyala patrols a village during tense local municipal elections in Vuwani, South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko