A trail of misunderstanding stretching back to December, about ways of improving appalling classrooms at Menziwa High School in the Eastern Cape, ignited the explosion of pupils’ anger that led to their torching the school on Tuesday — and the subsequent arrest of 98 children for arson.
Pupils at Menziwa High School are detained by police after their school was burned down on Tuesday. (Samuel Shapiro, Equal Education)
This trail involves allegations and counter-allegations traded between the Eastern Cape education department and the school’s principal in a to-and-fro that appeared to leave pupils in the dark after three months of promises about when and how their school would be improved.
Principal Timothy Ntatu told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday that the tipping point for pupils was the arrival of contractors on Tuesday to patch up large holes in classroom walls.
Menziwa’s classrooms were in a shocking state before the fire. (Gillian Benjamin, Equal Education)
This made the pupils believe the department had reneged on its promises to replace the classrooms with permanent structures, he said.
Ntatu also told the M&G the department had misled him about its plans to address infrastructure problems at the school that include leaking roofs, mud floors, broken windows and prefab classrooms with gaping holes in their walls.
He said that from December — when he and the department first discussed these problems — until early February, he had understood the department would erect new brick and mortar structures. But later last month the department informed him that it would use other kinds of building materials.
Department head Modidima Mannya gave a different version of events on Wednesday.
He said he’d had a meeting with Ntatu and the school’s governing body (SGB) in December, where he explained that he would appoint a contractor to build new classes “using alternative technology”.
No more bricks in the wall
“I explained that this technology uses concrete and steel as opposed to [building] brick by brick and that 10 schools in the province were built last year very successfully using this technology,” he said.
“For some strange reason I was later informed that the school only wants brick and mortar structures.”
He said he had had to “shift money” to be able to attend to the school urgently. “You can’t say nothing was done.”
He claimed a contractor sent to the school last week was “chased away by people there”. The department would investigate “who decided that [the alternative] technology was not right”, he said.
Ntatu contested this version, saying after the December meeting with Mannya a contractor visited the school and presented building plans “that showed brick and mortar buildings”.
“I presented that to the SGB and parents and they were happy,” he said.
“Consultants and surveyors” were sent to the school in January, he said, and later in the month, graders arrived and began grading the grounds. Besides that, no other work had been done, he said.
In February department officials informed him “that the school was so bad that they need to move to plan B”.
Plan B involved using “this alternative technology” and meant new classrooms would be built more quickly.
But this was also when Ntatu first learned that “this is a kind of a temporary structure with a lifespan of 30 years”, he said.
Shortly after this he organised a meeting between departmental officials, parents and SGB members “so they could hear this for themselves”.
At the meeting, parents decided that they “were happy to hang on and wait for more permanent brick and mortar structures to be built knowing this might take over a year”, Ntatu said.
Brick and mortar, please
Department officials at the meeting then said “they would need to advertise for a new contractor who would build using brick and mortar”, Ntatu claimed.
Referring to the contractors who visited the school on Tuesday, Ntatu said they were not sent by the department but were “from a private company offering to patch up the holes in the walls because they heard we didn’t have classes when it rained”.
Pupils then asked Ntatu on Tuesday why the contractors were there. “They told me to send him away because they didn’t want their prefab classrooms with holes in them to just be patched up — so I advised the contractor to leave,” he said.
The pupils then wanted to know when building would begin at the school. “I told them I could not give them a date — they decided that they had had enough and the department could not be trusted,” Ntatu said. “This is when they went into the classrooms, pulled learners out, and set fire to the school.”
“They are tired of waiting so long and being forced to learn in such an uninhabitable environment.”
Menziwa after the fire. (Samuel Shapiro, Equal Education)
The whole school was destroyed in the fire, which caused about R8-million in damage, he said.
Ninety-eight pupils were arrested on Tuesday, police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Mzukisi Fatyela told the M&G.
“We have since established that many of those were not actually involved in burning down the school.”
Fifteen pupils are due to appear in the Bityi Periodical Court on Thursday, he said, facing charges of malicious damage to property, public violence and arson.
Ntatu said a departmental official visited the school on Wednesday and said he would speak to neighbouring schools about the possibility of temporarily accommodating pupils there.
‘We’re going back’
The department’s spokesperson, Loyiso Pulumani, said that a construction team was “going back to the school at the end of March to continue the building of new classrooms”.
He confirmed the “alternative technology” would be used, saying schools could be built both more quickly and more cheaply that way.
“Those 10 schools that were built last year are beautiful structures. [The technology] is approved by the South African Bureau of Standards and comes with a 50-year warranty,” Pulumani said.
A school with about 10 classrooms could be completed in six weeks to two months, whereas brick and mortar structures could take between eight months and a year, he said.
“For us it’s the urgency that is important — there’s a desperate need for more schools.”
He admitted that the government needed to explain better what this alternative technology entailed because there is a widespread “misconception” about it.
“People think we are talking about the old prefabricated structures,” he said.