Pupils in Eastern Cape 'mud schools' left behind

17 May 2015 - 02:02 By THANDUXOLO JIKA

Just after 10am on Friday, a bunch of children, huge smiles on their faces, ran out of their classroom to watch a helicopter fly over their school. It was a VIP convoy travelling to the coronation of King Zwelonke Sigcawu of the Xhosa at the Nqandu royal palace in nearby Willowvale in the Eastern Cape.For those few moments it looked as though the pupils at Gwabe Primary School in Dadamba village near Dutywa did not have a care in the world.But their reality is a heartbreaking one: they share a single mud rondavel, which serves as their school, with animals.The thatch roof is missing in patches and they learn their ABCs standing upright in the mud hut - because sitting on the dusty floor just dirties their clothes.Their Grade R teacher, Noxolo Mnyamezeli, was a pupil at the school 22 years ago."It was much better then," she said, "because we had proper desks and chalkboards."The mud hut is so dilapidated that it is a danger to the school's teachers and its 86 pupils from Grade R to Grade 4."Now there is nothing. The children have to learn and write while standing."These children are sharing this rondavel with goats, cows and dogs, which sleep here at night, and in the morning we have to teach them in the same place," said Mnyamezeli.Gwabe Primary is one of 197 schools in the Eastern Cape where the Department of Basic Education has failed to comply with a high court ruling ordering it to repair and upgrade the facilities. The order was obtained by the Centre for Child Law in 2011.On Friday, 30 of the pupils were crammed into the mud rondavel with three of the school's four teachers.full_story_image_hleft1"We teach them all in this small rondavel, all at the same time," said Mnyamezeli."It is confusing for some children and disturbing because they would listen to the other teachers if they hear something that interests them."There are no windows. The only source of fresh air is through the gaping holes in the thatch roof."It is very painful to teach in winter because the children are cold and when it rains it is just impossible to have any classes. It is muddy and we just cancel classes," Mnyamezeli said.The school has no ablution facilities, which means there is no privacy when nature calls and both the teachers and pupils head for the nearby veld to relieve themselves.They fear that the mud rondavel could collapse at any time, as happened with the rondavel that stood in its place until last year.Boniswa Gelem has been teaching at the school since 1993 - she taught Mnyamezeli back then."How can one really learn anything of substance when you are learning in a pigsty?" Gelem asked.full_story_image_hleft2Gelem said the children were tired of sitting in the dust. "It makes them look like they didn't have a bath."The only thing that keeps me going is that I want a better future for them. We get our stationery and the department pays our salaries, but look at this structure."No one can teach so many children under one roof and expect our children to get the basics right. We just honestly teach them to read and write; other than that, they are not getting anything to give them good foundation," Gelem said.Many of the children from the village give up on school at the age of 12 and prefer to ride horses instead of going to class.The next school is about 12km away. Getting there would require children to wake up as early as 4.30am to try to make it to school by 8am.Parents do not see this as a real alternative because it is a dangerous walk in winter, through bush and dongas. Children have been attacked on their way to or from school by those who do not go to school, because of village rivalries or crime."To go to the other villages they have to cross two rivers. When those two rivers are full, children can't cross, they just give up," said Boysi Ziyi, a parent and member of the school's governing body.full_story_image_hleft3Parents and community members, including pensioners, have been putting what money they can towards a fund to build a brick school, but progress has been slow. As matters stand, they cannot raise enough to buy the necessary materials all at once.The Centre for Child Law has taken up the school's plight, along with that of seven other schools that have not been prioritised by education authorities.In Ciko village near Willowvale, Lingelihle Primary School's children are in the same boat.Here, Grade Rs share the classroom with children in grades 2 and 3 - but at least the floor of the room has been smeared with cow dung to seal it in the traditional way.The "refurbishment" was carried out by parents to give their children a polished, clean surface to sit on.full_story_image_hleft4'Hurry up and fix our unsafe schools'In August last year, the Centre for Child Law dragged the government back to court to compel it to produce comprehensive evidence of a plan to get rid of inappropriate structures serving as schools.The Department of Basic Education had failed to deliver this plan as instructed by the High Court in Grahamstown in 2011.Gwabe Primary School near the rural Eastern Cape town of Dutywa was one of eight schools listed as applicants in the matter.Last month, the Centre for Child Law returned to court, this time to compel the government to put Gwabe Primary and 196 others on its priority list.Department of Basic Education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said these 197 "micro" schools were in the process of being merged ."Once this is completed, bigger schools will be built."story_article_left1The state had budgeted R8.2-billion for its Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Development Initiative to tackle the crisis, he said.The department had so far spent R2.5-billion on the infrastructure project.Although the department had failed to meet its target of fixing the 445 schools identified for repair within three years, he said, 108 schools had been fixed, 84 of them in the Eastern Cape."In addition to the 108 schools, 381 schools have been provided with water, 371 with sanitation and 289 with electricity, all of them for the first time."Cameron McConnachie of the Legal Resources Centre, acting on behalf of the schools, agreed that most of the remaining mud schools in the province had small enrolments.But this, he said, was not an excuse to leave children in unsafe classrooms."Schools have exhausted all avenues in trying to get assistance. Mud schools could have been eradicated years ago had the department planned properly. The budget has been made available. If the department won't produce the comprehensive plan, an independent entity must do it for them," he said.jikat@sundaytimes.co.za..

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