The conflation of political conflict with genuine service delivery grievances in Olifantshoek is proving a stumbling block in efforts to reopen schools in the protest-torn Northern Cape township, public protector Thuli Madonsela told the Mail & Guardian after visiting the area this week.
Her intervention failed to secure an agreement from community members to allow the town's three schools to reopen. In total, the high school and two primary schools serve more than 2 500 pupils.
The protesters, including disgruntled members of the local ANC branch, have barred pupils from going to school for the past four months. Even after a community meeting with Madonsela on Wednesday, those who spoke to the M&G have vowed to oppose re–opening the schools until the mayor, Maria Diniza, resigns.
This contrasts with the resolution that Madonsela and Godfrey Olifant, deputy minister of mineral resources, brokered with demonstrators in villages outside Kuruman last week. More than 40 schools reopened this week after four months of disruption. Olifant negotiated funding from local mines for the tarring of 40km of the 130km stretch of gravel road that formed the basis of residents' complaints.
Madonsela said part of the reason they were able to broker a deal in Kuruman is that protests there were not conflated with political issues. "The difference in Kuruman is that issues are not political, at least from what we saw. It was clear that we are dealing with issues of service delivery," she said.
By contrast, in Olifantshoek "we also got a sense of unresolved political grievances. We met groups of people who said they never wanted the mayor, even before the elections. That's a political issue. It seems the majority [of those raising grievances about the mayor] are from the ruling party."
Residents also complained about "slow service delivery" over electricity, water, sanitation and RDP housing, said Madonsela.
She said she could tell from her interactions with parents and pupils that most wanted the schools to reopen, but their fear of violence was keeping some from voicing support for pupils going back to school.
"I could see tears in Madonsela's eyes when we spoke about the schools," said a community leader. "I felt sorry, but I can't decide [to persuade the community to allow children back to school] because [community members] would attack my house."
Some ANC members in Olifantshoek also claim they are being barred from launching a new branch, saying that the John Titus branch is no longer in good standing. Although they are aware that the branch is rocked by infighting, Northern Cape ANC spokesperson Gail Parker said there is no proof that this has spilled over into the community and is fuelling the protests.
On calls for Diniza to resign, Parker said they have always urged the community to provide proof of the alleged corruption the mayor is accused of. "If people do not provide proof to us or the police, the ANC can't just act on allegations."
But "evidence" has now been handed over to Madonsela. "Residents have given us some documents that seek to confirm some of the [corruption] issues. We'll analyse them as part of our investigation," Madonsela said.
In the Kuruman villages, "parents are happy that children can now go to school", Oupa Essel, one of the community leaders, told the M&G. More than 16 000 pupils have returned to class after missing out on studies for four months.
Protesting residents, including parents, are said to have intimidated teachers and set three schools alight. But things could have turned out differently had national government intervened earlier, said Essel. "The problem is that our government fails to respond in time. It's only now that we're being listened to."
Teachers are bracing themselves for frantic catch-up work. "Remember, we're talking work lost over four months and we're now left with less than a month before the exams. It won't be possible to cover everything that has been lost," said Gaborokwe Mothusi, the regional chairperson of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union.
Mothusi said the union has agreed in principle to a catch-up plan drawn up by the provincial education department, but is still waiting for the department to "take us on board on how teachers will be remunerated for extra work".
The catch-up plan includes an extra two hours of schooling every day, Saturday classes and schools not closing for the September holidays.