The art of flouting security

The Gauteng DOE has ticked all the boxes in terms of security for its schools. Yet,there has been a seeming increase in incidents at schools. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The Gauteng DOE has ticked all the boxes in terms of security for its schools. Yet,there has been a seeming increase in incidents at schools. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

The Gauteng department of education has ticked all the boxes in terms of security for its schools, teachers and pupils. Yet, despite many of the advances in school security and the general decline in robberies and burglaries at non-residential premises in Gauteng, there has been a seeming increase in incidents at schools

When Laerskool Unika was broken into in May 2016, the incident occurred at two o’clock on a Monday morning. The suspects gained access to the school’s administration building through the roof and ceiling, breaking the ceiling in three places in their attempt to get access to the safe.

“When the alarm system alerted the security company, their team just stood on the outside of the school shining torches on to the grounds, meanwhile, the suspects had gained entrance from Locksley Avenue [on the other side of the school] and had made their way on to the roof,” recalled the deputy head of Laerskool Unika, Christo van Zyl.

This data was retrieved from Gauteng Education MEC Minister Panyaza Lesufi’s response to question 5.ED013 in the Gauteng Legislature.

While the security company stood outside, the suspects who had broken into the school smiled for the security camera in the administration building.

In the first seven months of this year, Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi confirmed that 262 cases of theft at schools had been opened.

Below is a map of the incidents reported by schools this year alone.


This is not the first time Gauteng has reported such high figures.
In 2017-2018, 178 robberies at schools were reported to the South African Police Service in Gauteng, which is much higher than any other province.

Even though the Gauteng department of education has, over the past two years, linked all schools in the province to a police station and spent millions of rands on upgrading school infrastructure, such as perimeter fencing and security systems, and appointing security guards, criminals continue to find creative ways to steal from schools. Even brand-new, state-of-the-art schools have been hit — which begs the question: are our schools soft targets?

Reporting burglaries at schools

As a rule, Laerskool Unika banks daily so there was little cash available on the school property and in the safe. The safe did, however, hold some of the laptops issued to teachers. The suspects stole several laptops, some cash and a few cameras. The suspects, van Zyl said, used water from the urn in the kitchen to flood the safe to quieten the sound of the angle grinder used to open it.

When the school administration arrived at work a few hours later, their offices were in a shambles. The floor was flooded and there were three holes in the ceiling. The school’s server had also been damaged.

Van Zyl recalled that, prior to the break-in, there had been a few incidents of computer theft from open classrooms during sports matches, but since the break-in in 2016, even these have stopped.

Before the implementation of the National Education Infrastructure Management System (Neims) initiative to provide all schools with perimeter fencing and an additional form of security, no-fee schools in Gauteng relied on 1,500 foot patrollers to provide security. According to the department of education, the 46 burglaries that no-fee schools experienced in January 2011 dropped to six in January 2012.

Yet the incidents of burglary and robbery have increased, and there is no way of tracking the province’s rate of detection and conviction. Neither the SAPS nor the National Prosecuting Authority were able to provide data, claiming that they did not drill their statistics down to a granular level. But Lesufi said, in response to a question in the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, the department met regularly with SAPS to discuss such matters.

The most recent data on the rate of convictions is from a 2017 response by Lesufi to a question posed in the legislature (the original response can be found at the bottom of this article). Lesufi told the legislature that between 2014 and 2017, 94 cases of theft from schools were opened with police stations in the province, resulting in eight arrests and one successful conviction.

The reasons schools are burgled and robbed, according to van Zyl, is because they are are soft targets. Even though van Zyl recalled watching the CCTV footage and seeing one of the suspects smile at the camera, no arrest was ever made. Burglars hit three more schools neighbouring Laerskool Unika in the same month.

The coincidence of four schools being targeted in the same area did not indicate that a syndicate was targeting schools, said Captain Anita Human from the Linden police station: “Crimes are indeed being committed at schools, as in any other area within the Linden station precinct, but no specific group of individuals has been identified,” she said.

Primrose High

Two years ago, Primrose High School had its “wake-up call”, says teacher and community safety officer Johan Bester.

On Sunday April 23 2017, at about 2am, six people broke into Primrose High in Germiston through accessing a Rand Water Construction site on the school grounds.

The burglars held up a security guard, disabled the school’s alarm system and stole 80 computers, laptops and an undisclosed amount of cash.

Primrose High is a sizeable property. It shares an entire block with a Greek Orthodox Church and community centre. With two gates leading to the school’s entrance, a palisade fence on its perimeter and 24-hour security on the property, it is difficult to imagine that anyone could break into the school, but this is what happened.

As the school waited two months for its insurance money to purchase new computers, the Computer Applications Technology (CAT) class was put on hold. CAT pupils learned theory for two months before the computers arrived and the pupils could put the theory into practice.

Before the break-in, there had been minor incidents with theft in some of the classrooms and the tuckshop, Bester recalled.

With an entire subject put on hold and two months before the June exams, the management of Primrose High made the decision to upgrade its security with CCTV. The school also repaired breakages in the fence.

The school hasn’t reported any incidents since 2017 but decided to increase its security once again in February 2019 after the robbery at Edenvale High, less than 10km away from Primrose. Two men posing as parents gained entrance to the school grounds and they attempted to rob the school.

In their attempt to rob the school, there was a shootout between private security, the suspects and the police, who arrived shortly after the alarm was sounded. Two of the suspects were shot dead; their suspected colleagues were apprehended and later appeared in court.

On the same day as the robbery at Edenvale, suspects robbed a school governing body member of R25,000 at Norkem Park High School, 19km away. According to TimesLive, the member of the governing body had returned to the school from an ATM with cash earmarked for a school trip.

These robberies received media attention, as did the multimillion-rand theft at Menzi Primary, which was burgled before the beginning of the school year, and Gideon Rambuwani Primary, which was burgled near the end of April. But it’s clear from the SAPS statistics that many school robberies go unreported. A search of online media found reports on only 11 of the 178 robberies reported to the SAPS in 2017.

The incidents reported in the media have tended to focus on the theft of tablets, computers, laptops, smart boards and cash. However, there were several stories that covered the theft of stationery and groceries, most notably incidents when the suspect was caught red-handed with the stolen goods.

In one instance, the police caught a suspect who had stolen stationery (pens, erasers, glue and crayons) from a local school had in his possession. According to the Midrand Reporter, a teacher recognised the stolen property after a mother went out and bought glue for her child who attends Ebomini Primary School. At the time the article was published, the school had already been broken into at least three times since the beginning of 2019.

In another case, the police got wind of a break-in at Agnes Chidi Primary School in Pretoria and stopped the suspect from stealing a photocopier, groceries, stationery, speakers, mats and a step-ladder. The suspect already had the stolen goods in his vehicle when the police apprehended him.

The theft of laptops, computer servers and projectors has affected schools, says Reagile Primary School principal Roselyn Msiza. She told local newspaper Tembisan in 2017 that her school had been burgled five times in three consecutive years and the loss of information communication technologies has hampered learners’ exposure to technology and teachers’ ability to send reports out in time, as well as hindering the administrative process. “I am really disappointed by the crime that is happening in our schools. The people who are responsible for the crime are really heartless when they continue to steal children’s education,” Msiza told Tembisan.

When groceries instead of computers become the targets of theft, learners who depend on the school nutrition programme will “go on empty stomachs for a day or more” Gauteng department of education spokesperson Steve Mabona told Health-e News in 2018.

“Going for a day or more without a meal affects the attendance and performance of the affected learners,” Mabona told the publication. He added that without food, the pupils would struggle to understand the material taught in the classroom.

Below is a map showing which schools, as reported in the media, were burgled between 2014 and 2019. The 89 schools were found through a combined Google news search and site search of community newspapers in Gauteng. Hover over the points to find out what happened at each school.

Although schools are hit randomly because they are soft targets, in some cases, the school can be burgled by the very people who run it. Two school governing body members, a community policing forum member and three general assistants forced their way into Nellmapius Primary School on January 11 2018 to steal stationery and groceries. When the police answered a call about a disruption at the school, they found the suspects in possession of stolen goods. The six were released on bail of R1,000 the following day.

To counteract the crime the schools have experienced, van Zyl said Laerskool Unika changed its security company. Bester said that Primrose High had hired an additional daytime security officer to sit outside the administration buildings with the main security officer in a guardhouse between the two entrance gates.

With cameras, burglar bars on windows and doors, and teachers and security officers walking around with walkie-talkies, Primrose High could feel like a prison, says one grade nine pupil. But many learners in his class agreed that they felt safer with the security.

In the meantime, the Gauteng department of education has placed tracking devices in all of the tablets given to pupils, which has proven useful in retrieving of stolen tablets.

Burglaries during the school holidays

Over and above the widely reported incidents that happened at the beginning of 2019, there were an additional 48 burglaries during the December 2018 school holidays.

This is according to data provided by the Gauteng department of education in the provincial legislature in answer to a question by the Democratic Alliance. Most of the schools targeted during the school holidays were quintile three schools in Soweto and Tsakane. The schools were vandalised and had property worth a total R1,248,500 stolen. The stolen property comprised electrical wiring, including electrical cords and circuit breakers, computers and groceries.

This year alone, R121-million of school resources in Gauteng have been lost to theft.

Lesufi appealed to community members last week to “take ownership of their schools and declare war against criminals who are targeting schools” and robbing learners of their right to quality basic education.

Some of the steps that have been taken to prevent further theft of school equipment in the province include random school patrolling and searches by the police and school management, police visits to schools, and the closure of taverns within a 500m radius of a school, said Lesufi in response to questions posed by the DA in the Gauteng legislature.

In response to the same question, Lesufi said the department and the SAPS hold monthly meetings, during which patterns of crime are shared and analysed and progress is evaluated on all reported cases, including those committed during the school holidays.

Below is a second map showing which schools were burgled in the December 2018 holidays and the items that were stolen. Hover over the map to find out more.

The Gauteng department of education was unable to replace the major items stolen at the beginning of this year immediately but has undertaken to do so in the 2019-20 financial year. The smaller items, though, would have to be replaced by the schools themselves.

Laerskool Unika and Primrose High, like many of the schools in Gauteng, have rapid-response security teams, a palisade fence around their perimeters, burglar bars and cameras. The schools are impregnable until someone finds their way through the school’s ceiling to smile at the camera.

Gemma Ritchie is a former Mail & Guardian staff member and is currently one of five Open Society Foundation Fellows at the inaugural investigative journalism course run in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand and Rhodes University.

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This article differentiates between theft, burglary and robbery. Theft is taking something that does not belong to you, burglary is entering a building with the intention to commit theft and robbery is taking something from another person with force and/or intimidation.

Data for this project was retrieved from Gauteng education minister Panyaza Lesufi’s replies to questions from the provincial legislature regarding the matter of school robberies and burglaries and the South African Police Service’s annual reports for 2018, 2017 and 2016. The media data was compiled through an online Google search using the keywords such as schools, Gauteng, theft, burglary and robbery (and the variations of the last three words). The media data on schools ends at May 2019 and does not include incidents from June, July and August.


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