Only one book in the schoolyard has escaped the fire. Ironically, the single line penned in the book is: I will never forget such a tragedy.
The tragedy unfolding in Vuwani, in the Vhembe district municipality of Limpopo, is real. None of the functioning schools will take in the stranded pupils whose schools have been burnt to the ground. It’s as if they have leprosy.
The children sit around the school grounds and some are doing laundry – instead of studying for the June exams.
Fear is tangible. Not one of the parents wants to talk. Neither do the people living near the vandalised schools. The chiefs have called for calm to be restored but said the government must also find a solution to residents’ core concern – they don’t want to fall under the new municipality of Malamulele.
Sixteen-year-old Vhuhwabo is one of the more than 800 pupils who no longer has a school to go to. Her school, about 10km from Vuwani, was attacked two weeks ago.
The Vhafamadi Secondary School pupil tells of how she watches other schoolchildren from a window of her home hopping on to buses every morning. They are the lucky ones – they attend schools in areas that have not been affected by the destructive protests that have been raging for a fortnight.
“I watch them every day and think how that used to be me in uniform walking to school every morning. Now we just sit at home and watch TV,” she says.
She has spoken to her mother about finding another school but her hopes were dashed last week when her mother told her that the other schools did not want to get involved. “None of the other schools want to take us. They told my mother that they are scared that their schools will also be burned.”
Her classmate, Butshiro (17), said he wept at the gates of his school. “I stood there in shock. The whole school was smouldering and the smoke was still coming out of the admin building. I cried. It was painful.”
For his mother, Charity, the situation appears to be hopeless. With three of her five children out of school, she says she doesn’t have a plan. “I have spoken to relatives and my husband in Johannesburg but no one knows what to do. I want to find them another school but how are we going to do that when all their records have been burnt at the school?” she asks.
It’s a pertinent observation. The administration building and the classrooms that housed the children’s records and their learning materials have been reduced to ashes.
Her two younger children, who are in grades five and two, are at home too. Their school, Mashau Primary School, was also burned down. “The little one cries sometimes, saying he misses his storybooks,” she says.
The residents of the area are still in shock. A woman walking past a school stops, shifts the weight of her shopping bag and gazes at the ruined school that spans four blocks, its furniture strewn around at the gate.
“The night they burned the school, they came running into the village shouting … They kept shouting ‘Vuwani [wake up], you cowards! Now you will see’,” she says. Her family was so scared that they switched off all their lights and hid under their beds. When night turned to day, they saw that their beautiful school was nothing but damaged walls and broken glass. She doesn’t understand why protesters would burn a school.
“No one in his or her right mind would do such a thing. What does it matter where we go? We live in villages and we have electricity and running water. If we go to the next municipality, we will still have those things. Instead, now our children will have nowhere to go to school.”
Five kilometres from Vuwani, near Avhatondwi Primary School, another frightened community tries to piece their lives together after the school’s administration office was torched on Saturday. “Hambani, hambani [go, go], please,” one resident says fearfully, when asked about the situation. “You will get me killed. If they see you here they will burn my house. Please leave now,” he begs.
Chief Nthumeni Masia, of the Masia Traditional Council in Vuwani, says he has called for calm on behalf of the other chiefs.
But he says the government is not addressing the Vuwani community’s core issue: they don’t want to fall under the Malamulele municipality. “The violence must come to an end but, as much as we are communicating that message, government and other stakeholders have the responsibility to also amplify the message about the fundamental issue.”
He says the peace will be short-lived peace if the government does not resolve the underlying reasons for the protests. “If we can resolve this impasse and bring the situation back to normalcy, then children can return to school.” But this means very little for Vhuhwabo and thousands of other pupils, who just want to be back at school.