Opinion: Vandalism keeps rural and township schools on a perpetual back foot
"Burning schools, most of which are already not in the best of conditions, is a crime against the very same children we claim to be the future of this country."
According to the 2009 general household survey in South Africa, there are an estimated 2.1 million children with disabilities. Picture: Shutterstock
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Go to any village or township in South Africa you will be smitten by the beauty of our school names, from gang ridden Cape Flats to impoverished villages and townships in the Eastern Cape, KZN, North West and Limpopo.

With names such as Bokamoso, Inkanyezi, Bulumko... unlike schools in more urban and affluent areas these schools are generally named after an ideal, as opposed to a revered historical individual or place, the school is a symbol of hope and aspiration for its learners and greater community.

Most of these schools are characterized by dilapidated infrastructure, dysfunction, poor education outcomes etc. but their names say something else.

It is not by coincidence, as much as they might be under resourced and exist in communities that are crippled by poverty, unemployment , criminality and lack of service delivery.

The school as a symbol of hope 

Education has always been a vehicle to lift one out of poverty and that ultimately when you obtain it no one can take it away from you activists, struggle heroes and some of the most influential and revered South Africans in business, the arts and sports are products of these schools.

Some of these schools are as old as schools in urban areas although through various reasons many of them remain a shadow of what they use to be.

There might be no old girls, old boys or an active alumni like those seen in schools in more affluent areas such as Mzomhle High (Old Mzomhlenians), however these schools were famous for their teaching methods, had revered teachers, top performing learners and excelled in sports.

Nyanga High in eNgcobo in the Eastern Cape is an example of such as school who has maintained their success over the years.

Although due to migration, learners from these communities tend to go on to pursue higher education and find employment opportunities in the big cities. Therefore losing touch with their former schools only returning home over the December holidays when schools are closed.

I participated in  a webinar hosted by School Leadership Forum this past week Professor  Michael le Cordeur from Stellenbosch University reiterated the idea of past students in under resourced communities keeping in touch with their former schools and the major impact it could have. 

Schools as the battleground for service delivery protest 

In late March we collectively heed the call by our government and played our part by practicing social distancing to try and fend off the spread of the novel Coronavirus pandemic.

However a different activity was talking place in our empty schools: their destruction en masse.   

And with schools closed rural and township schools are fighting yet another barrier in their quest to realizing quality education; arson, theft and vandalism.

It is disheartening to see the theft of equipment meant to aid learners, the vandalism and burning of school infrastructure.

Did you know that since the lock down a total of 1577 schools have been burgled, vandalized or torched throughout the country? 

As the Department of Basic Education prepares to gradually open schools, rural and township schools are again vulnerable.

Government is afraid of sending PPEs, sanitizers, as announcements are being made thieves are listening attentively waiting on the fences ready to pounce. 

At the beginning of the the 2020 school year Tokelo High School, in the Vaal, was set alight - burning down four classrooms, the damage was estimated at R4 million.

This is a disservice to South Africa's efforts and contributions to the United Nations 2030 agenda for the realization of Sustainable Development Goals, the most important of all the goals, number 4: Quality Education.

A crime against our own children

And late last year in Katlegong in the east of Johannesburg a school was set alight by residents in protest due to a lack of electricity in the area.

The fallacy of burning schools to gain attention from government cannot be justified - instead it is a crime against our own children, it is a self inflicted act of perpetuating the cycle of inequality and poverty.

This prolongs schooling and the opportunity to a better life for the children of the most unequal country in the world.

Children are forced to be out of class falling behind and districts having to grapple for resources and redirecting kids to other schools or setting up short-term structures so that learning and teaching can continue putting more pressure on an already under performing system.

The community must help to identify perpetrators. Law enforcement needs to arrest, prosecute and make an example of those guilty of making schools a battleground for their discontent.

As if lost classroom time, lack of access to the internet and online learning resources is not enough, when the lock down is finally lifted and schools reopen, learners will not have classrooms to return to and no learning and teaching resources.

As we begin a new decade we should do away with this callous behavior.

It’s as if we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Any power we might one day acquire; its foundations will emanate from the same schools we choose to set alight, vandalize and disrupt to voice our dissatisfaction with elected officials in a democratic country.

In most of our families there is always the infamous drunk uncle figure, even they in their drunken state would always wax lyrical and urge kids to remain in school and get an education.

Our frail and sometimes illiterate grandparents too know of the opportunities that education bring that they never got to enjoy because of our past.

If not stealing from our kids it is a total disregard and betrayal of their sacrifice and struggle.

Though I cannot prescribe what communities should do to voice their discontent. Maybe boycott elections, march to the municipal offices? 

Covid19 will soon put millions out of work poverty and crime will grip the nation, perhaps these school breakins are a glimpse of what is yet to come.

I don't know, I don't have all the answers.

But what I know is burning schools, most of which are already not in the best of conditions, is a crime against the very same children we claim to be the future of this country.

These schools symbolize hope that someday we will escape poverty and inequality.

I'm sure for the learners and parents of Tokelo(meaning Right) and the hundreds that have been destroyed since the lockdown their rights to an education and a bright future have been violated.

They will have to continue with the 2020 school year on the back foot as if the barriers we have to learning are not enough criminals have decided to add arson, theft and vandalism into the mix.

Sean Mbusi is an education technology entrepreneur and the founder of Kamva Education 

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