Thembalihle Struggle Against School Exclusions

Excluded learners take to the streets

Kamogelo Seekoei

About 60 parents and their children from the informal settlement of Thembalihle, southwest of Johannesburg, took to the streets of neighbouring Lenasia on Tuesday after failing to find places in schools since they opened nearly month ago.

Their admission problems have been mirrored across the country, according to community representatives, children’s NGOs and helplines, and teacher unions.

Exactly how many exclusions — illegal or otherwise — have occurred remains unknown, but the basic education department said affected children are “mostly in rural areas or on farms”. The department had been monitoring the reopening of schools and about 98% of primary-school children were in classrooms — but it did not know when it would issue its report on the re-opening of schools.

In full uniform, the Thembalihle children were soon joined on their march by 15 high school learners who were also still looking for places.

Bhayzer Miya, a march organiser and member of the Thembalihle Crisis Committee, said principals and the Johannesburg South school district office had sent the children and parents from pillar to post since the schools reopened. Some of the parents had tried to comply with requirements by registering their children last year, but had been turned away even then, he said.

Thembalihle’s parents said the reasons principals had given them for refusing their children included overcrowding, an inability to pay fees and a lack of documentation such as birth certificates.

On the first week of school the crisis committee accompanied parents to schools and were told by one principal that there was a vacant classroom that could accommodate about 45 grade one learners, Miya said.

“We were told to organise 45 grade one learners and bring them the following Monday, but when we got there we were turned back because there was no teacher, furniture and funds for it,” he said.

By Tuesday this week the parents had had enough, saying the excuses they had repeatedly heard from schools boiled down to illegal exclusions. Miya said he suspected the schools were claiming to be full, but in reality did not want children from Thembalihle because many parents could not afford the fees.

“Secretaries take instructions from their principals who then tell parents that if they don’t have money or birth certificates, they have to turn them away,” Miya said.

Nokwakha Dziba said she tried to register her son last October, but was told to return with R450. She had only R200. “When I returned in November, I was told the school was full and placed on a waiting list. I am still waiting even now,” she said.

Tempers flared on Tuesday when a district official identified only as Madam Zwane walked away from the Thembalihle parents and children, saying she wanted to address their leaders. Parents started singing protest songs and called the official back.

“We are tired of being represented,” screamed one mother. Madam Zwane then told parents they were irresponsible and that was why their children were still not in school.

“Would I be standing here if I was irresponsible? Don’t tell me I am irresponsible,” cried one mother as other parents also screamed at the official.

Zwane responded that she had the responsibility of ensuring the grade one learners were in class by next Monday. “The school does not have a vacant classroom, but we will create one for these learners and I will contact you before Monday to let you know if you can bring the children,” she told the parents.

She advised the unplaced high school learners who had joined the march to look for space at other schools, a challenge for those who have already tried that channel.

At another Lenasia school, a learner trying to get admission to grade 11 said she was told she could not be accepted because she did not have Afrikaans.

“The principal just looked at my report and told me that I would not be able to pass because I did not have Afrikaans,” said Nesta Cacadu (17), who has moved from Carltonville to her grandmother’s house in Thembalihle.

Cacadu said she had started looking for a school in January because she moved to Thembalihle only this year. “I really don’t know what else to do. I have tried and I am worried about the work that I am missing out on,” she said.

Orphaned twin sisters Shirley and Sylvia Mohanoe (19), who stay with their uncle, said the schools had told them registration was closed. “This is so frustrating. We have tried all we can and there is no help anywhere,” said Sylvia.

One Lenasia principal, Nobbie Maharaj, said: “I just don’t have space here.”

Another principal, Sudesh Singh, blamed parents. “In poorer areas many parents have this lethargic attitude towards their children’s education. Others will take initiative while others have many excuses.” He said when parents registered their children last year, some were accepted and others placed on a waiting list.

Thembalihle children get classroom

Kamogelo Seekoei & David MacFarlane

The determination of residents in Thembalihle, an informal settlement southwest of Johannesburg, who took to the streets of neighbouring Lenasia three weeks ago to get their children into school, has paid off.

The Mail & Guardian reported on February 4 that about 60 Thembalihle parents and their children had protested in Lenasia that week after being turned away repeatedly from schools since they reopened on January 12. Fifteen high school learners who had also been excluded from schools in the area joined the march.

After heated exchanges with the marchers, a Gauteng education department official conceded that it was her responsibility to ensure the primary school learners would have a classroom, teacher and furniture by the following week.

Now 42 grade one learners are in a classroom especially created for them at Zodiac Primary School, although they did not have a teacher until Monday this week, said Bhayzer Miya, a member of the Thembalihle Crisis Committee. The 15 high school learners have also found places, in Moses Marena and Azara Secondary schools, said Miya.

Sudesh Singh, the principal of Zodiac Primary, said the school would create catch-up programmes for the 42 grade one learners, who had lost about a month of schooling. “I would not say they missed out on much because, generally, the first term is used to help grade one learners settle into school,” Singh said.

Long-standing problem

The exclusion of learners in the area is a long-standing problem. In January 2005, the M&G reported that about 200 learners and parents had been locked out of Azara Secondary because the school had declared itself “full”. At the time the department said only the provincial minister could declare a school full, not the principals.

This week Gauteng education department spokesperson Charles Phahlane said parents in Thembalihle were not aware of admissions procedures. Once the department became aware of the problem, “officials were immediately assigned to the area… and assisted parents in placing their children”. Phahlane said Gauteng was making strides in reducing the number of late admissions. “As at January 27, 12 902 applications for late admissions had been received,” he said. The province has more than two million learners.

“This is an improvement on past years. In early 2010 we had 25 415 late registrations and the trend was similar in previous years,” he said. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Cape this week, education department superintendent general Modidima Mannya was still unable to provide details of the “white male principals at former Model C schools” he earlier claimed were the chief culprits in illegally excluding learners.

The M&G last month reported Mannya’s anger at widespread exclusions across the province and his determination that a task team report he had ordered would provide details of culprits against whom he would act. This week he said he had only a “preliminary” report and could not specify which schools were involved in illegal exclusions. Some of them were “not former Model Cs”.

The preliminary report further suggested that some school governing bodies (SGB) had instructed principals to exclude learners. “Officials will investigate whether SGB policies are inconsistent with government policy because that can’t be accepted,” Mannya said.