Riots set back learning at damaged schools

Places of learning in KwaZulu-Natal were seriously damaged during the recent tumult in the province.

Soldiers from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are guarding schools in Umlazi, southwest of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, after they, like the malls in the township, came under attack during the looting and rioting in July. A total of 38 schools in Umlazi were burglarised, looted, vandalised and set alight. 

Government officials say 139 schools in that province and four in Gauteng were targeted, and it would cost more than R300 million to repair them and replace their stolen infrastructure and equipment. Teachers and principals say teaching and learning will be disrupted as a result of the destruction.

Other school districts affected include Ixopo, where the circuit manager’s office was burned, and Ugu on the South Coast, where construction materials were stolen at Nkonka and Merlewood high schools in Port Shepstone and at Dumisa Primary School in Umzinto.

In Newcastle in the Amajuba district, classrooms and furniture were set alight at Ntobeko Primary School. A library and kitchen were damaged at Simanganyawo Primary School and toilets were vandalised at Zabalaza Primary School and Amadada Secondary School. 

30 July 2021: The looters broke into the main office building of Mziwamandla High School through the roof, damaging the ceiling lights of an office in the process.

In the Pinetown district, a gas stove was stolen from Silverton Primary School but later recovered by security guards. At Bahle Bonke Primary School, looters broke in and stole a new fridge and two deep freezes and also took computers, photocopying machines and all the feeding programme supplies. 

In the Umgungundlovu district, office equipment and furniture were stolen at Sikhululiwe Secondary School in KwaMncane and computers were taken from Vulindlela Education Centre in Elandskop. 

The guard house at Umlazi district’s circuit office, in the township’s U section, was set alight. The office to which all the local schools report and get their instructions from lost 11 doors, all its newly installed computers and various other items. 

The trauma left behind

Looters also dealt Mziwamandla High School in Umlazi N section a serious blow. According to the school’s staff, criminals had broken in at least four times in the past two years, taking vital teaching and learning items and equipment. But on Sunday 11 July, they are said to have used the cover of the widespread mayhem to attack the school. 

The looters allegedly arrived late in the afternoon and warned the security guard they would come later that night to claim their booty. A group of men then arrived at about 7.30pm. Some of them were armed with guns while the rest had an assortment of weapons. They demanded that the guard lie down on his stomach and stationed a man to watch over him. 

Then they entered the school, broke into the main office building through the roof, ransacked fridges and stole laptops and food meant for the feeding programme. They also burnt down a few classrooms and the music room with all the equipment inside.

The security guard, who cannot be named for safety reasons, told the school staff that he survived because of a disagreement among the looters over whether he should be killed or not. Those who said he must be spared won the argument, saying nothing would be achieved if he was killed. 

30 July 2021: Caretaker Thandizwe Ntaka shows one of the offices where looters broke into Mziwamandla High School in Umlazi. Laptops were stolen, along with food meant for the feeding scheme for pupils.

Thandizwe Ntaka, a caretaker at the school, says the guard was so traumatised and fearful that he only waited to receive his July salary before leaving his job and returning to his rural homestead in the Eastern Cape. 

“He told me he narrowly escaped death. He said he had a discussion with his wife and family and they decided that he must return home for a while. He said he liked his job, but it was not worth his life. He said he will come back to Durban to look for work once he has settled and dealt with his trauma.”

Ntaka says some items like pots that the looters hid in the bushes behind the school have been found. “We confiscated these items when two men came back to fetch them. They were carrying them on their heads when we stopped and told them those items belonged to the school.” 

A case has been opened with the police but the school has not heard anything about it yet, says Ntaka. 

Blow upon blow

Emthethweni Primary School, about 2km from Mziwamandla High School, was also vandalised and looted. Various critical items were taken, including three computers on which the filing system with information on pupils’ progression and other relevant details about them and their parents was stored. 

Staff here say the school has recorded six burglaries since 2018, and many more before that, with desktop computers, laptops, photocopiers, fridges, food and other items taken each time. Buildings and classrooms were also vandalised during the recent unrest. 

30 July 2021: Thandizwe Ntaka at a broken window where the looters cut through the burglar bars.

Menzi Biyela, the chairperson of the school governing body, says more than 20 computers have been stolen in the countless break-ins at the school. “The most painful part is that no one has been arrested and prosecuted. We just open cases and the police never investigate or follow up. 

“We can no longer allow criminals to derail the future of our children. Schools groom children to be responsible future citizens. All NGOs [non-governmental organisations], CBOs [community-based organisations] and churches must come together and intervene as they can speak or tell the community the truth,” Biyela said. 

“Our children must be able to learn about computers. But it cannot be that when we manage to get these computers, they are stolen and that is the end of the story.” 

Teachers in schools in Umlazi say they are happy now that their security has been reinforced by members of the SANDF, but they fear that these gangs of criminals will return to torment them again once the soldiers leave. 

Schools need their communities

Nomarashiya Caluza, KwaZulu-Natal secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, says the government must work harder to secure schools and their infrastructure, but communities must also work together with schools to protect them. 

“We have police, we have soldiers around here, but the fact of the matter is that they will not be here all the time. It is imperative that members of the community work together with the schools and the police,” Caluza said.

“We have to protect our schools, our centres of learning, because education is a societal matter and requires that we all work together as partners. We need to give the schools, the teachers and the learners hope and assurances that they will be safe.” 

30 July 2021: Caretaker Thandizwe Ntaka walks past more broken windows at Mziwamandla High School, the site of extreme destruction and vandalism.

Kwazi Mshengu, member of the executive council for education in KwaZulu-Natal, says the provincial education department is still battling to fix the schools damaged by heavy storms that occurred in 2019.

According to Mshengu, there were already about 420 schools across the province that had been damaged either by the storms or vandalism and burglaries prior to the unrest in July. Fixing the schools that were damaged now will require finding money for which there is no budget. 

“We are talking about millions of rands in damage here,” said Mshengu. “In the immediate future, we are going to need to find mobile classrooms to accommodate some of the pupils displaced in these schools and these mobile classrooms are very expensive.”

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