'Bullies' called to account

The sudden relocation of more than 150 farm-school children 120km from their homes and families a year ago remains unresolved between the parents and the provincial education department involved.

This week the Catholic Institute of Education (CIE) submitted a complaint to the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC) over the plight of these learners and their families.

CIE chairperson Mark Potterton told the Mail & Guardian that his organisation is approaching the HRC because the Free State department of education has failed to address the removal of learners from Warden to Qwa Qwa. A CIE report on four farm schools in the Free State says the department has been “bullying” farm schools’ managers and the learners’ parents into accepting the transfer of learners from Warden to Qwa Qwa.

In January last year officials from the provincial department of education arrived at the Sibonakaliso Combined Farm School in Warden and announced that in 24 hours all grade 10, 11 and 12 learners would be sent to a school 120km away in Qwa Qwa. The farm is owned by the CIE but the province administers the school.

The report, which the M&G has seen, claims officials said the school was underperforming—it had recorded a decline in the matric pass rate from 62% in 2007 to 25% in 2008.
It also says officials argued the school was no longer viable because most learners had stopped attending it because they had no transport.

Without “proper consultation” with school management and the learners’ parents, buses roared into the school’s gates the following morning, the report says, and took 152 learners to Sekgutlong School in Qwa Qwa.

There they were put in a hostel that has frequent power and water cuts.

The report notes that learners were forced to start studying Sesotho, though they had been studying isiZulu at ­Sibonakaliso.

It says the children are not properly supervised and Sekgutlong faces a tavern where many of the relocated learners have been found drinking and smoking.

The M&G has learned that learners have also been seen roaming the streets night and day, even during school hours.

The CIE report says that in June last year, because there was no food at their new school, the learners were evicted from the hostel at night and had to hitchhike on the N3 to get back to the farm in Warden.

Staff at the school were reluctant to speak to the M&G and referred queries to the department.

The education district director in the Thabo Mofutsanyane District Municipality, Thabo Chele, denied that the school and parents were not consulted before the children’s removal.

Deacon Benedict Mokheseng, who represents the Catholic owners of the property, said the school has a history of remarkable performance and that in the past 10 years it has won several awards from the department, including the most improved school award in 2000.

Chele said the Free State department’s rule is that when a farm school underperforms “we intervene by taking some of the learners from that school to a better performing school in the province”.

“As parents, we are disappointed with the department for what it did to our children and us,” said Maria Mazibuko, whose child was transferred to Sekgutlong, where, she said, children had complained about lack of food, electricity, water and supervision.

Another parent, Sarah Mokhine, said: “We were tricked and separated by force from our children. We were told that if we did not allow our child­ren to be sent to Qwa Qwa, Sibonakaliso would be closed.”

Chele expressed surprise that parents and others “are still pursuing this issue”.

“Of course there were challenges — there are always challenges when dealing with learners. There were children who would sneak out of the hostel at night and there were several cases of misconduct from the learners,” he said.

However, Potterton said: “Since last September we have been asking the department to respond and they have not bothered to do so — Now all of a sudden when they hear that the M&G is investigating the matter they send us a message acknowledging receipt of our letters.”

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