In the first week of May the country witnessed the most devastating destruction to public property in recent years. At least 24 public schools in Vuwani, north of Limpopo, were razed, seemingly linked to a decision of the Municipal Demarcation Board. While there are many theories as to what sparked the targeting of schools, thousands of pupils have been left without classrooms and administration blocks.
While Equal Education (EE) was at the Constitutional Court on Thursday, listening to school governing body association Fedsas argue against admissions regulations that will see a shift in how the poor access well-resourced public schools, we received news of more schools gutted by fire. The question in mind was, why target schools? Do the perpetrators see no value in the struggle for better school infrastructure? These were painful questions to ask, and EE knew then that our bitter and ongoing struggle in Limpopo for better school infrastructure had been dealt a huge blow.
This is the same province that delayed the public release of its plans for fixing school infrastructure. This is a province where little Michael Komape died in a pit toilet. The same Limpopo province where the previous MEC of Education arrogantly and shockingly on live television declared that it was “God’s will” that Michael died. Those who have torched schools in Vuwani have attacked the soul of the nation and have denied many young people their right to education.
By Sunday, police had declared 24 schools gutted by flames – meaning 26,937 pupils have been displaced. Furthermore, the burning of school administration buildings means that school records were destroyed: students applying for child care grants and who need school records to do so will suffer the consequences. This may lead to those pupils not being able to access the monthly grant which we know has assisted in alleviating poverty among many child-headed households in the country. Children needing school records to apply for identity documents will also struggle, and we urge the departments of Social Development and Home Affairs to assist.
One of the many theories in circulation about Vuwani is that the violence is rooted in political contestation, as a result of the decision of the municipal Demarcation Board. While this remains a theory we ought to remember that there is nothing revolutionary about burning down a school and this is what political leaders must remind their supporters of. By the razing of schools or clinics (as has happened in other areas in the country) one is directly inflicting pain against poor black people who desperately need the services of such an institution. The perpetrators ought to be brought to book, and the law should take its course.
The Demarcation Board should be reminded of its role and influence in society. Its envisioned role is to assist government departments to plan better as per municipal boundaries, but moreover its role is a transformative one. It is imagined that the Demarcation Board will help fix the legacy of apartheid geography. Because of the sensitive nature of its work, this board ought to take all the necessary precautions, foremost among them engaging communities in a transparent manner. The Demarcation Board should be immune from any political influence.
One would have hoped that the board had learnt from the mass protests in Khutsong in 2006.
While the destruction in Vuwani will be extremely costly for the Department of Basic Education (estimated at about R400-million), I commend the Minister of Basic Education for personally visiting the area. A contingency plan to secure a learning space for the thousands of pupils affected must be realised. We remain hopeful that communities will once again rally and support efforts to fix schools in the area.
I have also been encouraged by the community members who have taken to guarding schools throughout the night to prevent any further damage. To the privileged who have been saying that poor black people don’t care about education, I urge them to check their privilege and rather see this as an opportunity to unite and defend the many pupils who until recently were up before sunrise to walk long distances to overcrowded classrooms, one hot meal a day and many a committed teacher. These are the real casualties – not some self-righteous individuals who hold criticism close to their hearts.
It is for the sake of these pupils, the leaders of tomorrow, that we intensify the #FixOurSchools campaign as led by Equal Education. This campaign should intensify, and we should declare that no child should be made to learn in unpleasant learning conditions regardless of their class position, race or gender. The struggle for an equal education in South Africa should not be delayed by the burning of schools. DM