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Ten years ago Corruption Watch ran an investigation into the dire conditions at Macosa Junior Secondary School in the Mqanduli area of the Eastern Cape. The school had no furniture for its 500 or so learners, no proper ablutions, and the walls had not been painted in years. Those learners who had a place to sit, did so on makeshift chairs or old paint tins and large bricks, while the tables could be fashioned out of old iron sheets, if at all.

It was a desperate situation that required an urgent intervention, but one that the principal of the school at the time described as an old challenge: the school had last received furniture from the provincial department of education in the 1990s, despite having made numerous requests for such support over the years.

One thing would become clear over the years that Corruption Watch would develop and launch its schools campaign. There were many Macosas out there. The Eastern Cape is home to many schools that face challenges of bad or no infrastructure, and it was not clear that the provincial authorities placed them high on their list of priorities. The province is also the home of the launch of a class action lawsuit against the National Department of Basic Education (DBE) that sought to get it to commit to an implementation plan for the eradication of mud schools.

But as vast as the province itself, so are the challenges for its education sector, and the dynamics enabling mobilisation and change. In addition to the ineptitude of the education authorities, a crime problem further proliferates the crisis. Schools in the province are targeted by criminals who steal and vandalise their infrastructure, stripping some of the little they have. These incidents commonly happen during weekends and holidays, when criminals exploit the absence of learners, teachers and administrators.

In January 2022 Pefferville Primary School in East London’s Duncan Village started off the first term of the year under difficult circumstances. The school had been vandalised over the December holidays, and was left in such a state that teaching and learning could not commence. The school leadership had to make arrangements for learners to be taught from home while plans were being made to restore the school. Through the support of the Department of Education, local businesses, and the community, the school managed to restore some learning.

But there was more vandalism at the beginning of this year, this time at an estimated cost of around R4.6-million, prompting members of the community to take to the streets in protest. As a result of the criminal activities, Pefferville could only resume its 2023 academic programme in February, a month later than other schools.

New programme to enhance safety at school

But it would seem the tide is turning, as it was at Pefferville that the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga launched the National Inclusive Safer Schools Programme (NISSP) in August. It is a partnership programme with, among others, the German development agency (GIZ), and emphasises an inclusive culture in and around schools that makes them safer.

Motshekga commended the Pefferville school governing body (SGB) for the firm position it has taken to raise the issue of safety to government. She said it was through the hard work of all partners in the programme that a positive outcome would be achieved. “We are very lucky in education to be surrounded by angels in the form of our children, but if baffles me when adults take their anger out at children. Why vandalise an institution of learning?”

The message from those involved in the programme to the learners, parents and community members present on the day was clear: there would be no tolerance of criminal activity from either outside or inside school grounds, that hampers learning at this and other schools.

“The NISSP has been led by the Department of Basic Education, and has to date trained four provinces. This launch marks the halfway mark of our joint investment in this process and it also symbolises the beginning of the prospect of the possibilities of change within local communities, said Noxolo Thabatha of GIZ’s violence and crime prevention programme, at the launch.

The message was echoed by Buffalo City Municipality mayor Princess Faku, who declared that the municipality would seek to institute a by-law that eradicates informal trade in copper and other metal trading within its perimeters. This is because the informal trade in such metals helps to create a market for criminals who then plunder public infrastructure in order to make a quick buck reselling them.  

“Our resolve is to create an atmosphere where the pursuit of knowledge is unhindered by a fear of insecurity. Our goal is to transform schools into sanctuaries of care, where children can learn and grow without the shadow of violence,” said Faku.

SGB chairperson Lubabalo Mafuna also condemned the offensive nature of the criminality that has plagued the school. “We want a better future for our kids, nothing more. Everything about our kids is personal, we don’t care who says what. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to get a better future.”

The NISSP is expected to be rolled out in the North West, Limpopo, and Gauteng provinces next, before it goes to the rest of the country. Motshekga emphasised the importance of community involvement in the protection of schools, saying that when learners feel safe inside the premises of a school, they’re more likely to have fun learning.