Vuwani destruction: A people at war with themselves

An elderly woman pulls her seven-year-old grandson across the main gravel road of the village. Barefoot and bawling, the boy is half-walking, half-running, kicking and screaming, and at times being dragged like a sleigh along the stony ground, all the time in the firm grip of the slight woman.

Somewhere along the way, in an ancient act of juvenile protest against parental authority, the boy empties his bladder into his new pair of shorts. The woman notices it but does not flinch. As if to the rhythm of her beating heart, she marches on, with the screaming child in tow.

Later, the unhappy couple stands in a queue, at the head of which there is an enormous man, wearing a suit and tie. The boy, whose face is covered in a mixture of snot and tears, is so upset that he has pledged not to speak to anyone for the rest of the day. The torture of being awakened from sweet morning slumber, the anguish of being brought violently to a strange place full of loud and cruel children, the shame and discomfort of a wet pair of trousers – all these were too much for the seven-year-old.

So went the boy’s first day at school. Not even the stunningly beautiful grade one teacher, Ms Nzula, could charm the boy back to happiness.

The boy was none other than yours truly. The elderly woman was my maternal grandmother, Madzivandlela N’wa Dick, who, though she had never set foot in a school herself, dragged me to school and made sure that I stayed there.


In those days, the village and the school had different names, and the school was a primary school. Today, the school is called Vhafhamadi, and the village is known as Ha-Mashau, one of those in the greater Vhuwani area in the Vhembe district. Vhafhamadi is one of the more than 20 schools torched by protesters.

When I first learnt that Vhafhamadi was one of the “victims” of that shameful bout of political arson, I was distressed. My heart bled, my soul wept, my blood curdled and my mind boggled. I joined fellow mourners on social media. I was horrified about the perverted protest strategy of burning schools. I can think of nothing more daft, more callous or more shortsighted.

The fact that the stratagem was not first used in Vuwani – a factor cited by some – cannot excuse the wanton massacre of the future of children we witnessed in Vuwani. Not even the example of Malamulele, where five schools were torched in a gross and demented misappropriation of protest action, should be used as an excuse.

All instances in which people resort to using the schooling of their children as a way to barter for their short-term economic, political and social needs must be stopped. These have included the burning of libraries and schools, preventing children from going to school, and taking part in prolonged strikes, often deliberately timed to coincide with the most crucial periods in the academic year.

It seems that the education of black children has become dispensable. When all else fails, it seems, some present-day would-be politicians, local leaders, residents and labour activists, again and again, default to hijacking the education of black children, who are then used as a bargaining chip.

Although it has used in various places over the past 22 years, this strategy is not worthy of being considered a legitimate protest. It should rather be described as mass social psychosis or communal suicide. It is a sign of a community that has lost its collective mind.

If there is a principle of proportionality in war and conflict, such a principle should apply to protest too. This is not to take away from the creativity of protesters in dramatising and acting out their plight in ways that upset social consciousness and the status quo.

Nevertheless, protest should not be conducted in a manner that is disproportionate to its objectives. The method of protest should neither negate nor nullify the goals of the protest. Protest action, properly considered, should seek to win public sympathy and not be geared at alienating the greater public. The conduct of protest should not be in a manner that violates the rights of children and even those yet to be born.

We may never reach the levels of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King in terms of their ethics of protest. Not many of us can turn the other cheek, especially in protest action. But we can appreciate how important it is for protesters to aim for both the moral high ground and whatever their immediate protest objectives may be.

This is one lesson we can learn from them. It is also a lesson we can learn from the best in the struggle for freedom and justice. In their resistance, the liberation movements took care not to succumb to the cruelty and the myopia of the apartheid regime.

If protesters do not take these matters to heart, how can they be distinguished from the villains against whom they are protesting? And how can we discern the ideal they wish to achieve? How can we be sure they deserve whatever solution arises?

Surely the explanation for such acts of self-flagellation, self-hurt and self-hate must be sought outside the boundaries of reason and deliberate calculation, even of the most malicious type.

This may be part of the problem with the current basket of possible explanations. We are trying too hard to decorate the barbarity of school burning with rationality and coherent explanations, perhaps for the sake of our own sanity.

If service delivery is at the heart of the demarcation grievances, why burn the most valuable symbol of service to any community? Of all the things that could be burned in a poverty-stricken area, why, oh why, target schools?

Nowhere is desperation more evident than when we try to explain this in terms of tribalism. Unlike in other provinces, ethnic integration has a long history in Vuwani and its surrounding areas. Even the artificial and forced separation of people on ethnic grounds, as enforced by the apartheid government when they implemented the homeland system from the late 1960s onwards, did not entirely separate the Vatsonga and the Vhavhenda people. Below, between and behind the artificial geographical and linguistic boundaries of the homeland system, people found ways to forge unity, co-operation, political activism and to practice ubuntu.

It is not possible that post-apartheid South Africa provides more fertile ground for tribalism than the apartheid homeland system. I suspect that what we have now is the political manipulation of ethnicity for nefarious, short-term ends.

The ANC, which dominates that part of the country, is bitterly divided. If I am correct, those engaging in such manipulations are playing one of the most dangerous games in politics – think Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan.

Nor is the argument about the Vhavhenda and Vatsonga scrambling for limited resources convincing. The same tired argument is pulled out of the archives, dusted off and propped up each time the mainly Afrophobic xenophobic attacks flare up. Why are we even wasting time with these red herrings?

The scramble for limited resources argument applies only to corruption and tenderpreneurship. There may be a scramble for limited tenders among the ruling elite and the well connected. A new set of boundaries can be disruptive of cosy arrangements directing tenders and favours in a particular direction. New municipal boundaries could establish new lucrative routes and networks for tenders and favours. Could this be a factor in the Vuwani-Malamulele tug of war?

The spectre of a weakened government, seen by some as morally bankrupt and led by leaders who, according to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, each have their own “smallanyana” skeletons, may be the incentive for the unscrupulous to encourage arson as a way to negotiate with the government. The fact that education is the only long-term tool with which this country can be developed is of no consequence to such selfish thugs.

School burning is a crime to be stopped, not explained, let alone understood.

I call on my fellow Vhafhamadi alumni to join hands in rebuilding that school. But, first, we must make sure these criminal acts are not allowed to happen again.

When we vandalise schools, we demonstrate weakness, not strength. When we burn libraries, we display ignorance, not enlightenment. When we burn schools, we show cowardice, not courage. When we use the schooling of our children as a negotiation tool, we prove our folly, not our wisdom.

The torching of schools is a matter of shame, not pride. It reveals deep levels of self-hate. It exposes us as a wounded people at war with ourselves.

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