Dear MEC Schäfer: Our schools are unsafe. Will you take action or fail us - again?

The peaceful protest organised by Equal Education included activists and learners. (David Harrison/M&G).

The peaceful protest organised by Equal Education included activists and learners. (David Harrison/M&G).

Last month, about 80 learners held a peaceful protest outside Western Cape education MEC Debbie Schäfer’s home. The protest was in response to the failure by MEC Schäfer’s office to respond to the findings of a social audit into school safety and sanitation that was compiled by Equal Education. Among those who participated in the protest was Wandisa Pakisi who has penned this open letter to Schäfer.

Dear MEC Schäfer,

My name is Wandisa Pakisi. I am a learner in Grade 10 at Oscar Mpetha High, in Nyanga. You don’t know me, but as I am a Western Cape learner, you are, in many ways, responsible for me.

I’m not convinced that you realise how hard it is to be a black learner in an unsafe, township school. My school is near a taxi terminus, so the hole in the fence is convenient for people who want to take a short cut home, and for learners who want to bunk class. That only half of schools have a fence that can actually keep people out, was one of the findings of Equal Education’s social audit of 244 Western Cape schools. 

During the school holidays, people who live around my school took parts of the fence for their own yards. It was fixed, but last term a huge wind hit my school, knocking parts of the fence to the ground. To this day, it has not been completely repaired. Last term I was walking to school with my cousin when two young men walked toward us - fast, pointing and whispering. We thought that they were going to rob us. But they walked past us, and mugged the man behind. We saw them make him hand over his phone and empty his pockets. I once watched from my desk, during my Consumer Studies lesson, how a skollie jumped the fence and ran into the girls’ toilets. I didn’t learn anything for the rest of the day…

I waited outside your house to tell you this, but you must have been too ashamed to face me and my fellow learners. I wrote it down on one of the mini-audit forms, that we gave to your district directors over two months ago. They also would not come out from behind their gate, they were also scared of us, but why when we are asking them to do their jobs? You called the mini-audit forms “loose papers” on Twitter and in a media statement. That shows us that you don’t take us seriously.

It made us feel undermined, insulted and disappointed. Those “loose papers” represent our individual voices – the worries and fear we face daily at school. 

On Twitter and in the newspapers you kept saying that we should have come to your office instead of your house to hand over the social audit data. But the last time learners marched to your office (from Phillipi High School), they were met by a big group of police. They were met with rubber bullets and stun grenades. When my peers from Iqhayiya Secondary marched to your office about corporal punishment in their school, they had to negotiate with the police to be able to be heard by Western Cape Education Department officials. 

When Equalisers from Sizimisele High attempted to gather outside your office, they could not get any further than Woodstock train station – they were punched and kicked by police. This should give you some idea why our Leadership Committee decided to gather (sitting, standing and singing) outside your house. 

I want to remind you of some of the reasons why school is not a safe space for many of us: 

  • Corporal punishment: This affects us learners very badly as we find it hard to concentrate in class, many learners are scared to report the teachers that do this, because those cases are not handled with sensitively, and confidentially. 
  • Gangsterism: We are being attacked inside our classrooms and gangsterism does not only affect learners. Teachers are also being traumatised by these gangsters. 
  • Lack of safety in schools and on my way to school: In my school, there are four security guards (you did employ two additional security guards) but they are not effective. I am not safe on my way to school because there are gangsters and criminals around in my area. Ask yourself how many more learners in other schools are affected in the same way that I am. 

Our social audit, which represents the experiences of learners in 244 schools here in the Western Cape, shows that: 

  • Corporal punishment takes place at 83% of schools.
  • 4 out of 5 learners say that teachers use sticks, batons, pipes, and other objects to hit them.
  • At 1 out of 3 schools drugs/alcohol was used in the last 3 months.
  • At 1 out of 6 schools there was a gang presence in the last 3 months.
  • At more than half the schools there was a robbery in the last year.
  • At 1 out of 4 schools there was vandalism in the last year.
  • At 1 out of 9 schools there was a case of a stabbing in the last year.
  • At 3% of schools there was a case of rape reported in the last year and learners said there were instances of sexual assault at 16% of schools.
  • Less than half (47%) of schools have a full-time security guard.
  • At only 54% of the 244 schools with security guards, did those guards have training. 

Recently, my Equal Education comrades had a meeting with HOD Penny Vinjevold and her senior officials. I am encouraged that she takes our social audits seriously, and that she has promised to take action in the first three weeks of the third term. 

What we want from you, MEC Schäfer, is to: 

  • #FixOurSchools. Fix the fences, the windows, the doors and the burglar bars; · Look into and stop corporal punishment.
  • Work with the SAPS. 
  • Ensure that the metal detectors at schools are functional, to avoid the use of weapons by gangsters and learners inside our schools. 

Hear our pleas for your help, it has been too long.

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