/ 12 March 2015

Pupils Speak Out: ‘They called us the ‘K’ word and told us to go back to the township’

One for all: Three classes are conducted in one classroom on a farm in Breyten
One for all: Three classes are conducted in one classroom on a farm in Breyten

The article you are about to read is part of a weekly series of comment pieces written by South African pupils about the problems they encounter in their schools. The series offers pupils a chance to be part of the debate about South Africa’s education system.

This is a statement of what actually happened on March 6 at the Western Cape Education Department, and events since.

On the morning of March 6 2015, we, as the Philippi High pupils, decided that each pupil will go the Western Cape Department of Education (WCDE) for each of us to ask and get answers themselves.

When we arrived at the Cape Town Central Train Station, the South African Police Service (SAPS) were already there waiting for us. They asked to speak to our leaders; we told them we don’t have any. They then asked who is in charge, why we were there and where we were going. 

We told them that our entire school is made up of shipping containers and that we are going to ask for ourselves from the WCDE when are they planning on building a proper school for Phillippi High.

We made it clear to the police that we are neither marching nor protesting. They appeared like they understood us and that they supported our cause. At this point they offered to escort us to the WCDE. As we walked to WCDE, however, more police arrived.

When we got to the WCDE, the mood of the police changed. We wanted to go into the WCDE to speak to the officials about the problems our school faces. All of the time, we were peaceful. The police though stopped us from going in to see the officials by spraying us with pepper spray.

After this the police demanded that we should send four or five “leaders” inside. We told them once again that: 

  • We don’t have a leadership; 
  • We are not comfortable with giving our power to a group of a few pupils; and  
  • That each pupil there wanted to find out answers for themselves.

Anyway, we then reached a compromise and delegated two learners to go inside. Their mandate was simple and clear: we tasked them with entering the premises in order to request WCDE officials to come out and meet us as a whole and answer our questions. The WCDE officials promised them that they were going come out if we were quiet. We sat down and kept quiet, but no one came out to address us. All the time our actions were peaceful. After waiting some time we stood up and began singing.

After a while some of our pupils saw one of the WCDE employees talking to the police. After this the behavior of the police got even worse.

We then heard a noise which turned out to be a police Nyala. The Nyala came towards us. We sat down, but it attempted to make us move by driving towards us as if it intended to run us over. Directly after this the police then started to count down from five and they then threw something at us. 

We did not know what it was at the time, but we heard a massive bang that sounded like an explosion (we later learnt these may have been stun grenades). This was followed by repeated bangs. We also did not know at the time and even now whether they were also shooting at us with rubber bullets, as some of the police were armed with shotguns that could fire rubber bullets.

As we ran from the police we went towards a corner in order to get away from them and the stun grenades they were throwing. We all feared for our lives as we did not know what these were. Most learners lost their shoes; while the tracksuit uniforms of some were also burnt and ripped by the stun grenades and perhaps rubber bullets.

As part of this, the police then forcefully pushed and shoved us as a group towards the Cape Town Train Station. In this way they herded us towards the Station. While pushing, shoving and even hitting us they repeatedly called us the “K” word, threatened us, insulted us, and told us to go back to the township as we did not belong in the city centre

Five pupils were badly injured, four of them were later were admitted to the Somerset Hospital. One was bleeding from the mouth; another learner was burnt from the first grenade that landed in her lap; and some were beaten (some of those that were beaten though went home to recover and were not hospitalised).

With all of this happening one girl also fainted and was unconscious and couldn’t breathe for a while. Two of us tried to help up the girl that fainted. One woman from the Department came to assist us and she took us to the office on the top floor of the WCDE. They left us alone with her for about an hour and during this time we were not sure whether she was going to be fine. Later the women from the WCDE came back with a first aid kit and a male colleague – he gave us a toilet paper as part of offering help. A couple of minutes later the paramedics came and gave her oxygen and they told us to go.

We have since laid charges of assault against the police.

In the wake of what happened, on Monday a group of officials secretly visited our school to meet with our principal. We strongly believe again that they had no intentions of meeting us and hearing us out. We also strongly believe that they have no plans for our school.

When we noticed that the officials were preparing to leave our school without talking to us, we left our classrooms to go and speak to them before they were gone. When we spoke to them it was clear they really had no feasible plan for building a school as they told us:

“We had already planned for our school in the area, but we have no land to build it on … that a school doesn’t get built over a night … we should be patient as it will take at least two to three years or more to build even if land is found … we are looking a piece of land … your parents and the whole community should help us in this process”

We realised that they were telling us all of this to try and stop us mobilising – because how can you build a school when you have not earmarked land for it. Even if they do build a school in the next three years, which seems unlikely given they have not earmarked land for it, it would mean most of us would have already left Philippi High. We have all vowed that we will not stop organising until the WCDE present a feasible plan.

With this statement we hope to set the record straight. We were once again failed by and punished by the South African government/state on all counts.

What we experienced are arrogant officials that didn’t want to answer us nor hear us out and a trigger happy racist police squad. We firmly believe that the police were pressured by the officials to have us removed.

As part of setting the record straight we also want to say: 

  • We did not block the entrance at the Department on 6 March – there were many people who were entering the premises but no Philippi High pupils; 
  • The Department did not meet with us on Friday March 6; and 
  • That Department did not care for all of the injured on March 6 – in fact we are only aware of the WCDE assisting one injured person – the girl that fainted – and even this was limited.

This article was originally published on GroundUp