“It’s dangerous. There’s shooting and sometimes we have to run and go down on the floor and lay down flat,” says 10-year-old Rabia Tagoedin.
Her cheeks have a blush of pink and her light brown eyes sparkle. She stumbles over some of her words as she rushes to talk about her day at school.
Rabia is a pupil at Blomvlei Primary School in Hanover Park, Cape Town. In recent months, the school has experienced break-ins, vandalism and gunfire from gangs who live in council-owned blocks of flats nearby.
One blessing for Blomvlei principal Waldimar Snyders is that none of the children at the primary school have been killed during the shooting. But the staff and parents at the school fear for the youngsters’ lives.
Rabia likes to play. She watches videos on TikTok (the latest social media video app craze) on her smartphone and googles outfits she can dress up in for big days such as Eid.
She lives with her family in Primrose Park, a quiet suburban neighbourhood of the Cape Flats. Her parents enrolled her at Blomvlei because they also look after her grandparents, who live in Hanover Park.
Rabia likes going to school, she even likes doing homework. She thrives in her natural sciences class and has a reputation for being her teachers’ favourite.
Like many pupils across the gang-torn areas around Cape Town, her experiences of school life are marred by gunshots.
The worst time is home time. As crowds of children in blue and white Blomvlei uniforms spill into the streets around the school, the shooting begins in earnest. School governing body chairperson Fayrooz Salie has seen it so often that it’s become routine.
“They use the children as shields to get close to their enemies. A gangster can’t get close to their rival, so they will move between the children to get closer when they are walking home from school,” says Salie, who is also a teaching assistant.
The education department
A bulletproof fence surrounds the school grounds. Bullets are wedged between the fence’s narrow metal lines and in some places the metal is curved outward, mimicking the shape of the bullets that have entered the school through the fence.
Gang violence isn’t the only problem. There are large holes in the school ceiling where criminals have stolen cables. The break-ins and vandalism soared during the June and July school holiday period, and the school governing body says it filed eight reports to the Western Cape Education Department. The department maintains that there were only two reports filed.
“As a department, we obviously have a role to play and are providing schools with security measures such as fencing, burglar bars, security gates and alarms linked to armed response, within very tight budget constraints,” said department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond.
According to Raatiqah Tagoedin, Rabia’s mother and the vice-chairperson of the school governing body, these measures by the department have been ineffective.
The school’s security gate motor and alarm are broken. The department dispatched two security guards to keep the school safe during the holiday period, but they were robbed at gunpoint. The security guards were sent to protect the school unarmed, says Tagoedin.
“They didn’t even have a baton,” she adds with a wry laugh.
It’s not just Blomvlei
Violence and crime at schools is rampant in the Western Cape, particularly in more impoverished communities where gangsterism thrives.
The education department recorded burglaries or vandalism at 471 schools in the first six months of 2019. This is a jump from the same period in 2018, when 395 schools were robbed or vandalised.
At Blomvlei, the governing body has had enough. On 8 August, parents and pupils stood in the rain to protest against the violence and crime. A handful of adults stood outside the school gates, while about 100 pupils stood behind the bulletproof fence, chanting: “We want peace”, “Stop the shooting” and “Where’s the police?”.
“To be honest, we are really sick and tired of all this ducking and diving in our community, especially at Blomvlei. Every time our learners come in the morning, they have to look behind them to see if the bullets are coming,” says Salie.
The school governing body and the learners are demanding more assistance from the department and regular police patrols.
It has been largely the parents who have taken the lead to keep the learners safe. Tagoedin and other Blomvlei parents Michelle Rhoda and Candice Jansen are involved in a programme called the “walking bus”. They walk children home and, sometimes, dive to the ground with them when gunshots ring out in the afternoons.
The parents also help patrol the school, staying on the grounds all day to protect the children and report any crime to law enforcement and the police. They have been volunteering for more than 10 years.
Despite the gunfire, Rhoda’s daughter, who is now in high school, was valedictorian in her year.
Uzair Tagoedin, 12, is Rabia’s older brother. Soon he will go to high school. The youngster, who is more soft-spoken than his sister, worries about her during the shootings.
Other boys have tried to entice Uzair to smoke dagga, drink alcohol and steal at the school. He says it’s the “rude children” who are the gangsters. Most of the children at Blomvlei end up at Mount View High School next door. But Uzair is determined not to go there.
“There’s too many gangsters,” he says.
Rabia is also reluctant to attend school at Mount View, both she and Uzair would prefer a high school outside of Hanover Park. But unlike her brother, she still has a few years left at Blomvlei.
She hopes to be a teacher one day, but every day she’s in the classroom with her own teachers she fears for her life.
“I’m still scared, because just now they shoot us,” she says.