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He came, he learned, and now he leads. In early May this year, soon after the end of the national school governing body (SGB) elections held across South Africa, *Jomo Sithole visited the Corruption Watch office with a lot of questions and an eager mind. He was determined to learn as much as he could about not only his rights, but his responsibilities too, as a newly elected SGB member at a primary school in Soweto.

With this visit, so began a journey of utmost appreciation for the intense task ahead. The next time he showed up at Corruption Watch, it was weeks later. His determination had not diminished and this time around, reporting alleged abuse of power was on his mind.

Sithole had learned of Corruption Watch’s efforts through an acquaintance who is also an active parent at a nearby school. He met with Ronald Menoe, the deputy director of Corruption Watch and campaign lead on the organisation’s schools corruption campaign, now in its fifth year. Menoe and his team had just completed a roadshow that aimed to encourage participation of parents in the elections, and had handed out thousands of flyers in activations held in several provinces. One of these was the reference tool through which Sithole’s friend unveiled to him the work of Corruption Watch.

“An amazing thing just happened,” shared Menoe excitedly following Sithole’s first visit. “I had a very interesting chat with a gentleman who is an SGB member at a school in Soweto. He came to get one of our pamphlets and learn about the support work we do with SGBs.”

SGB efforts paying off

For Menoe, the efforts of his team were starting to pay off. He had also started noticing a steady increase in telephonic enquiries from parents and teachers who wanted to know more about their responsibilities within their SGBs, particularly with regard to holding principals accountable for the financial management of their schools.

“He found a Corruption Watch pamphlet in a daily newspaper encouraging parents of public school learners to participate in SGB elections,” he said of Sithole. “He lent this to a neighbour, who subsequently misplaced it.”

This prompted Sithole to come in person to our office and speak to someone about the issues raised in the pamphlet. Menoe has been working with Sithole on an advisory role, and is also incorporated into the Gauteng Department of Education’s SGB workshops schedule as an added voice for members who require capacitation.

Sithole lives close to the school where his twin girls have been pupils for six years. For as long as his children – who are now in Grade 7 – had gone to the school, he had been aware of, and supported its activities and extra mural efforts. The principal, he recalls, has always been actively involved in such efforts too.

Community engagement in the school’s activities is encouraged, and for this reason many parents have not shied away from responsibilities relating to the school.

Too honest for the SGB

It was not until he became an SGB member, however, that Sithole realised that all might not be well, particularly with the financial affairs of the school. Soon after the general elections, the executive of the SGB was elected. He became treasurer, a position he did not think much of, until he felt compromised. “I knew the principal was close to one of my neighbours, who was the treasurer in the former SGB, but I didn’t think much of their relationship until I was in the SGB myself.”

“One afternoon I was asked into the principal’s office to ‘sign’ some documents,” he told Corruption Watch. “The previous treasurer was also there, and the mood in the room was a jolly one, everyone was friendly.”

According to Sithole, things went sour when he would not sign the said documents before inspecting them first. “The principal was standing behind me, over my shoulder, and it seemed like everyone was taken aback when I insisted on being given the paperwork home to go over it at my leisure.”

The principal, he said, grew agitated. “I think everyone had taken for granted my limited education. So they all thought I would just oblige without questioning things.”

To this day, Sithole is unsure of what kind of document he was almost coerced into signing, or what the implications of such are, but he knows it was a turning point for his journey on the SGB. “Not long after this, I was removed as treasurer, due to a technicality relating to the bank’s signatory policy.”

Knowledge is power

According to the South African Schools Act, the SGB of a school may have only three signatories, one of whom must be the principal. Any two of the three may authorise payments at any given time, provided the payments are done in good faith.

“I was not sore about being removed, as long as I was to stay on the SGB, but I can see that my relationship with the SGB executives has since changed.” There is tension between Sithole and the principal, but he is determined to get the rest of the parents on board to play a more active role in making the SGB accountable.

Such may be the struggles that SGB members across the country encounter all the time, but knowledge of the legislative framework that governs schools, and an appetite for holding school leadership accountable at all times is necessary for keeping public schools clean and corruption-free.

* Jomo Sithole is not the SGB member’s real name.