By Valencia Talane

Like many other youngsters, Zamuxolo Moutloali takes his matric exams very seriously. He has had a passion for drawing since childhood, so naturally his sights beyond the make-or-break exams are set on a course in graphic design or similar. But 2013 has not been an easy year for Zamuxolo and his sister Palesa Manyokole, and if he could, he would erase the events of this year from his mind to give it the peace it needs at this time.

Zamuxolo and Palesa, along with fellow learners at Moshesh Senior Secondary School, took both the Eastern Cape and national education departments to court in 2012 to answer for the poor governance and appalling conditions in which they have to learn. Another demand heard in the Bhisho High Court, was for dedicated teachers as well as sufficient textbooks and other learner support material they so desperately needed.

As reported in May by Corruption Watch, the school has been put under administration by the provincial department and the principal, Matlokotsi Leeuw, suspended for maladministration and financial misconduct.

At the time Lungelo Mtatyana, the Maluti district director for education, said the financial misconduct charge had been added after an investigation had started, along with a further charge of embezzlement of school funds. Furthermore, Leeuw failed to pay a service provider for stationery even though the department had given money to the school for this purpose, said Mtatyana. The principal also failed to place an order for textbooks on time.

Victimised for wanting to learn

“The trouble for me actually started in 2011 when I failed my grade 11. I realised early on in the year that I had to do something because I could see that there was no way I could pass,” Zamuxolo reflects in an interview with Corruption Watch. He went through a whole year without writing a single test in life orientation. “I failed this subject and this is what brought my average marks down so I could not pass at the end of the year.”

Life Orientation is offered as a compulsory subject for all learners in grades 10, 11 and 12. It takes a practical approach to the development of life skills in learners and is assessed through practical tasks and examinations scheduled across the four terms in the year. Each school has to have a schedule outlining how Life Orientation tasks will be carried out and when learners’ capacity will be assessed.

“I suspect that the schedule was not even there at our school,” says Zamuxolo, who adds that a lot of learners in grade 11 did not pass because of the inadequate Life Orientation marks. “I only got 29%, which was one mark away from making it through.” He suspects that those who did pass, did so because the school needed to have new learners in grade 12 and therefore their marks may have been manipulated to secure this.

Making a plan to improve the situation

Moshesh’s learners needed a plan to turn things around at their school. In Leeuw’s absence, they approached their teachers for help. “We requested a meeting with the teachers and after we had put our concerns to them, we were told to go ahead and do what we thought was right.”

The frustration of dealing with unsupportive teachers spurred the group on. Zamuxolo sought to take the learners’ issues to the highest education authority, Minister Angie Motshekga. He not only found the number for her office, but also that of civil society organisation Equal Education, which offered its support.

“Things got bad when Equal Education tried to help. I don’t know if the teachers felt pressured or just insulted, but Equal Education wasn’t allowed into the school when they tried to intervene, and it was a mess.”

Somehow, the teachers managed to zero in on Zamuxolo. “The first time I heard of the word ‘saboteur’ was when it was used by an angry teacher to say that was what I was doing to the school, sabotaging it. He told members of the community that I had shamed the school by bringing in outsiders.”

It is the teachers, he tells Corruption Watch, who have made his life unbearable at the school. One of the complaints the campaigners put through the court was that some teachers come to school drunk, leave early or spend little time doing any work. This revelation in particular has backfired on the learners. “Ever since our court action, I’ve been labelled a troublemaker and the very teachers who were a problem in the past would discriminate against me in class.”

Zamuxolo claims his pleas for the teachers’ support in class were always ignored. “If I dare ask a teacher to repeat something they have just said because I didn’t quite understand it, they told me no. One even told me he doesn’t have a child at that school, so he couldn’t care less.”

The teachers have also been heard to tell other pupils that they should stay away from Zamuxolo if they do not want trouble, because he’ a bad influence. “At some point members of the community were even called in to be told about me and how I’m dragging the name of Moshesh down. Whatever wrong happens at the school, I’m always the obvious suspect.”

But the young man remains undeterred. “The matrics often borrow DVDs to help with their maths studies, but I couldn’t get these. I’ve had to do a lot of catching up on my own, but I’m determined to make it and I’m sure I’ll get good marks.”

Support system

The teenagers’ mother is a single parent who wants her children to achieve their dreams and worries about how she can make that a possibility. With the spotlight on her children, she often worries about their safety while at school. “Ever since the bad treatment started,” explains Zamuxolo, “she has been asking if Equal Education cannot help secure space for me at another school where I wouldn’t be known.”

However, the youngster has resolved, the community of Queen’s Mercy needs him as do the all the learners in the lower grades, who have to continue to fight for a better Moshesh.  

“This area is rural, not only in its locality, but also in the people’s outlook,” he says. “The people here are afraid of standing up to authority, and I’m not only talking about the young people.”

Whichever university or college ends up accepting his application to study, Zamuxolo hopes it will not take him too far away from the community that he has known all his life.

“When we first contacted Equal Education, our request was for basic learning material, but it has now become bigger than that. The fight now is to help turn things around for our community and change perceptions on accountability.”

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Excerpt
The final part of our whistleblower series tells the inspiring story of two grade 12 pupils who are holding the provincial and national departments of education accountable for the poor governance and appalling learning conditions at their school.