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Ground Report – we visit Soweto’s worst-performing school, and find it in a shocking state

Ground Report – we visit Soweto’s worst-performing school, and find it in a shocking state
Litter outside classrooms at DR BW Vilakazi Secondary in Zola, Soweto. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

How do you go from a successful school to one in shambles? Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary is one such school. Having registered the poorest matric 2022 performance in Soweto out of 55 high schools, we visited the educational centre in Zola North to find out more.

It’s not hard to see why Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary is Soweto’s worst-performing school. “Fuck Dr” has been scribbled on the dysfunctional school generator which was installed just months ago amid the school’s electricity crisis.

On Thursday morning, 9 February, when Daily Maverick visited, a middle-aged male teacher was leaving the staff room carrying a chalkboard duster so worn out that almost only the wooden handle remains – yet another sign of the school’s rapid decline capped by the poor matric results.

And the decline has been spectacular.

In 2016, Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary attained a 72.5% pass rate, which dipped to 75.1% the following year. In 2018, the school attained a 78.2% pass rate, and 72.7% in 2019, when 161 pupils sat for the National Senior Certificate exams. This works out to an average of 74% over four years. 

Then, in 2020, the school’s 166 matric pupils recorded a 50% pass rate, as it plummeted to the bottom of Soweto’s matric performance list in just under five years. The list contains 55 high schools.

The class of 2022 did not fare much better – 54.03% with 19 bachelor passes.

The school’s decline has occurred despite a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 29 to one (about 1,320 pupils and 45 teachers), which is lower than South Africa’s recommended 30 to one.

No mops, or motivation

Initially, the school tried to block Daily Maverick’s visit, and refused to comment.

Despite written permission from the provincial education department to visit the school, the principal said he would call the district authorities to clarify, along with other unspecified calls.

Finally, he agreed to the visit, but managed to convince the department that DailyMaverick should not be allowed to interview pupils, teachers or himself.

During lunch time, some pupils smoked cigarettes and dagga right in front of their classrooms, in full view of other children. 

Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary

Break time at Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

The boys’ toilets had no lights and were littered with cigarette butts, as were the girls’ toilets. Most of the fire extinguishers were damaged and some of the doors did not have locks. 

Read in Daily Maverick:Soweto residents repurpose abandoned state schools that were closed ‘without consultation’

Many classes were filthy and we learnt that this was because there were no proper cleaning materials, such as mops, soap and brooms. 

Walking through rubbish, some pupils told us there was no teaching at all on civvies day, while many said they didn’t have teachers. 

The rot at the top

The management of the school, at governing body level, is in shambles, with three members alleged to have stolen from the school’s funds, while another, who is known to Daily Maverick, is alleged to religiously collect rent for himself from vendors selling at the school.

According to some parents, a case against the three members had been opened with the South African Police Service, but this could not be confirmed. 

Daily Maverick understands that the governing body members’ term of office expires in March. 

One thing that comes up in a Facebook search for the school is an advertisement for abortion pills under the name “Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary Soweto abortion”. Those behind the advert could not be traced by the time of publication. 

Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary

A pupil at Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

According to one parent, when it reopened this year, the school sought help from the neighbouring Curtis Nkondo School Of Specialisation because there was a shortage of books. “We were told that our children did not have stationery for some time and had to go to other schools for books,” she said.

Another parent said: “We took the children to that school because we wanted them to be educated and successful, but that is not happening. I always check my son’s school books and when I ask why he is not doing any schoolwork he just tells me that the teachers don’t teach.

“The teachers must not give up on our children.”

During Daily Maverick’s visit, some teachers spent the rest of the afternoon chasing after pupils, trying to force them to remain in class. Most classes had no teachers, so for the pupils this meant playtime. One staff member admitted there was a teacher shortage at the school.

Power crisis

The generator was obtained in August 2022, following two years in which the school had not had electricity. But now, barely six months after it was delivered, it stands ruined, next to the electricity distribution box which is in a far worse condition.

When the school reopened after the holidays, staff discovered that thieves had stripped wires and other parts from the generator. 

Read in Daily Maverick:Our education system is failing and crime and corruption are a major part of the problem

As for the electricity box, Daily Maverick gathered, it has been a matter of gradual destruction over the years, since the nearby Zola community has had access to it. Asked about this, all the principal of the school said was: “The community.”

We were told that some residents had caused the collapse of the school’s electricity network by illegally connecting to the electricity box.

DW Vilakazi

The vandalised electricity box at the school which hasn’t had power for two years. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

“Schools must be connected separately from the community, especially with rife illegal connections,’’ Isabella Motheo, a Zola North resident, said. 

Without electricity, photocopiers, printers and other equipment cannot be used.

“When it comes to the theft and vandalism, it takes place at night and normally discovered the next morning. Perhaps you might want to speak to the people on the night shift,” a staff member said.

It also emerged that security staff might not be motivated to protect the school from criminals because there are times when they are not paid.


Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary does generate income – from vendors operating inside the school and eight churches which hire classrooms for between R600 and R800 a month, depending on the size of the classrooms. 

However, it’s difficult to see where that money might be going, given the absence of basics such as mops and brooms.

Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary

A teacher in class at Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary

The facilities at Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary are not up to scratch. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

In search of answers

To make sense of what is happening at the school, Daily Maverick contacted the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, but it did not respond, despite the organisation’s Mugwena Maluleke delegating this task to provincial secretary Tseliso Ledima. 

Ledima did not respond after reading repeated messages urging him to do so.

But Equal Education (EE) researchers Elizabeth Biney and Katherine Sutherland did shed some light.

On the matter of the three school governing body (SGB) members and the missing funds, they said the conduct of school governing bodies is broadly regulated by the South African Schools Act (Sasa) and provincial education codes of conduct. EE had not had a chance to investigate the allegations against the members.

“Sasa determines the roles, responsibilities, obligations, etc of education departments and what they are allowed to do in the event that an SGB is not functioning properly,” Biney and Sutherland said. 

“In this scenario, since the allegation is a money issue, there is also the criminal justice system (SAPS) that can be used to bring charges of fraud, corruption or theft against the implicated SGB member.” 

Read in Daily Maverick:Eastern Cape schools in ‘worse state’ than almost a decade ago

Biney and Sutherland said EE was not aware of a teacher shortage at the school, since no such reports had come through their office.

“However, the issue is not unique to that school but is a growing concern in the sector,” they added.

A leDr BW Vilakazi Secondary pupil seen through a broken classroom window. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

At a parliamentary meeting in February 2023, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) reported educator vacancies per province.

“With negotiations for the Wage Bill still ongoing and budget constraints in the sector, it is likely this issue will continue to persist,” Biney and Sutherland said.

Asked how much a possible teacher shortage could have contributed to the school’s poor matric performance, Biney and Sutherland said that in general teachers – their availability and quality/skills – play a great role in the quality of teaching and learning.

“Depending on the way in which a school manages a teacher shortage, it might mean that classes are overcrowded, hindering effective learning and teaching and resulting in unconducive environments for learners, or perhaps that learners are not able to fully benefit from teaching time due to rotational timetabling or not having a teacher assigned to a class in specific periods. The consequences of either or both of these situations for learners are severe and long-lasting,” they said. 

“It is extremely difficult to catch up on learning losses, especially in foundational grades and critical subjects like mathematics, science or languages. Because it is likely that such losses will only compound as learners move through grades, one can safely say that teacher shortages contribute to poor performance.” 

Regarding the lack of cleaning materials, EE said schools receive a budget from the education departments for these and that it was the responsibility of the provincial education departments to provide schools with a sufficient budget for this. 

“Once schools have received these funds, it is then the responsibility of the school (with oversight from the SGB) to ensure that the school purchases adequate cleaning supplies,” Biney and Sutherland said.

On electricity, the researchers said that in October 2022 they received a response to a PAIA request from the DBE noting that there were 373 schools still on the electricity supply sub-programme of the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative. These schools are based mainly in more rural provinces. However, according to EE, there is very little recent data about how many schools in Gauteng do not have reliable access to electricity, and reporting is extremely unreliable.

“For example, the 2021 NEIMS report showed that there were no schools in Gauteng without access to electricity. However, the report notes that there are still 3,343 schools with unreliable electricity supplies, 105 of which are in Gauteng. It is possible that some of these schools will regress to a position of being without electricity at some point,” Biney and Sutherland said.

Department’s response

Daily Maverick’s next stop was the provincial department of education.

On the school’s electricity woes, spokesperson Steve Mabona said the department was attending to the matter.

“The department has sent a registered electrician to conduct an assessment for repairs. In the interim, we are procuring rechargeable lights for the school,” Mabona said.

Read in Daily Maverick:State of education on the ground differs from government reports — youth experts

On the matter of hygiene, the department said a request for procurement of cleaning materials was being finalised.

Mabona said the department was also aware of the matter involving the three SGB members. It had been reported by the SGB in 2021.

“A forensic audit was conducted accordingly,” Mabona said.

Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary

Pupils on their way to class at Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary. (Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips)

Asked about the status of the case against the members, he said their membership had been terminated via a process provided for by the South African Schools Act but did not elaborate on the measures taken.

On the day of Daily Maverick’s visit, we were told that there were district officials who the department said were on a routine visit and not in response to the problems at the school.

“Visits by finance officials are routine in nature and since the school is now a ‘non-section 21 institution’ visits are to offer support,” Mabona said.

“If schools were placed under administration under any circumstances, Dr BW Vilakazi Secondary should be top of the list,” added Motheo. 

The failures in the South African education system are well known, including the tragic story of Michael Komape, who fell into a pit toilet and suffocated on human excrement. DM

The names of the parents have been withheld to protect the pupils.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Bristow says:

    Every organisation works or fails according the quality of the person at the top, in the case of schools that would be the headmaster/mistress. Simple soos ‘n pimpel.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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