RIGHTS VIOLATED OP-ED
Children with disabilities face cruel and inhumane conditions at Eastern Cape school
Given the lack of response to the inhumane treatment of pupils at the Ikhwezi Lokusa Special School, the Department of Basic Education is once again failing children with disabilities.
As Disability Awareness Month gets under way once more, the government’s silence about the egregious rights violations of young children with disabilities at Ikhwezi Lokusa Special School in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, demonstrates its complete disregard for pupils with disabilities in South Africa.
It has been two months since Carte Blanche, on 3 September 2023, exposed the appalling conditions at Ikhwezi Lokusa – including the fact that the school does not have running water, the toilets are broken, the children have to sleep on brick-slab beds, young children are left to fend for themselves during the long interval when caretakers change shifts, completely unattended, and even allegations of sexual abuse. Even more distressing is the fact that this exposé is a follow-up to an initial report on the same school by Carte Blanche in 2018.
The school hostel accommodates children with physical and intellectual disabilities between the ages of six and 12 years. With ordinary schools unwilling, or lacking the necessary skills and resources, to accommodate these pupils in their local schools, parents are obliged to send their children to Ikhwezi Lokusa, in most instances hours away from home. Young children are then forced to live in the hostel away from the care and support of their families. Parents entrust their young and vulnerable children into the care of the principal, teachers and caregivers at the hostel, trusting that they will be cared for and nurtured, as every young child deserves.
Horrifyingly, these children are receiving the exact opposite of love and care and instead are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment. Their right to human dignity, equality, education, appropriate alternative care, and their right to have their best interests considered paramount, and not to be treated in a cruel, inhumane or degrading way, are being grossly violated. The conditions at the school pose several risks to the children’s safety and overall well-being, also violating their right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.
The government’s inaction… is not in keeping with its international, constitutional and statutory mandate.
South Africa’s courts have held that educators owe a duty of care to learners and must ensure their safety and well-being. The in loco parentis principle, which applies to educators, goes so far as to oblige teachers to maintain a level of care for learners they are in charge of equal to that which a parent would exercise. This would be especially important for vulnerable children such as these.
Since the exposé, several organisations of and for persons with disabilities and public interest law organisations have written to the Department of Basic Education, the Eastern Cape education department and the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities to demand answers and accountability. To date, there has either been no response, or a simple one-line shrug-off that an investigation is under way. When pressed for further details about the investigation, the composition of the investigating team, interim measures in place at the school pending the outcome of the investigation and whether or not findings would be made publicly available, the response has been silence.
The government’s inaction is failing these learners and their parents. It is not in keeping with its international, constitutional and statutory mandate to provide equitable, inclusive basic education for all learners without discrimination, protecting their dignity and ensuring their safety.
Must we wait for learners to die?
With the Life Esidimeni tragedy still so fresh in our memories, how is it possible that we are faced with yet another crisis where the rights of persons with disabilities have been totally flouted? Must we wait for learners to die? It would not be the first time! Too often learners with disabilities have sacrificed their right to dignity, and even their right to life, in order to pursue their most fundamental right to an education. In 2015, in North West, three deaf learners died in a hostel fire, where evidence emerged of the inappropriate and unsafe conditions at that school. In 2019, a learner died at a school for the blind in the same province. Countless other reports have been received of learners who have been sexually abused and neglected in special schools and special school hostels across our country. Reports by the South African Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch and other civil society organisations have repeatedly highlighted concerns about the lack of safety measures at our special schools and special school hostels, and have made recommendations for both regulatory reform and improved monitoring and accountability mechanisms, very few of which have been adopted. Surely the time for action is now! Surely we cannot continue to allow children with disabilities to be treated in this way.
A collective of organisations has called upon the minister of basic education to respond to their demands for accountability for those responsible for the appalling and unlawful treatment of these learners, openness and transparency in the investigative process, and urgent and immediate monitoring mechanisms to be implemented to ensure the issues identified at the school are adequately addressed and to prevent any further rights violations.
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The situation at Ikhwezi Lokusa was also brought to the attention of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by civil society. In its recent list of issues, against which South Africa must now report, the committee has requested that the state provide information on the urgent measures that must be taken to address human rights violations at the school.
The public must demand to be informed of the steps taken by the government in this case. It is our responsibility to demand accountability. This should be the clarion call in this month of disability awareness. Awareness should not only be focused on the rights of persons with disabilities but also on accountability for the violations of these rights. Let us unite to demand answers before this month is over! DM
Disability Awareness Month runs from 3 November to 3 December.
This op-ed has been written by Equal Education Law Centre Director Robyn Beere along with a collective of organisations of and for persons with disabilities, public interest law organisations and other civil society organisations.