Jail the thugs who burn, rob and vandalise schools

Vukuhambe Special Needs School in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape produced the brilliant Sibabalwe Mkunqwana last year.

Sibabalwe, who has athetoid cerebral palsy, was among the 30 top achievers for the matric class of 2019.

There are not many special needs schools in the country, particularly in the Eastern Cape, so Vukahambe school plays a fundamental role for children with special needs and their parents.

It was Vukuhambe that opened its doors to Sibabalwe, who only started school when she was 10 years old because her parents could not find a school for her in their area.

It is therefore very disheartening to learn that during this lockdown period, such an important institution has been broken into twice.

Vukahambe is one of more than 180 schools in the country that have been vandalised and burgled since the lockdown. The leading province is Mpumalanga with 72 schools, followed by Gauteng with 55 schools. Four schools in Soshanguve in Pretoria and one school in KwaZulu-Natal have been torched.

Thugs have stolen everything from laptops, food and anything that they can get their hands on. This is a heinous crime. At Vukuhambe they even stole the learners’ clothes ( the school has a boarding facility). Administration blocks, which are the engine of the schools, have gone up in smoke.

In his Monday letter to South Africans President Cyril Ramaphosa said the vandalising of property while the country is “experiencing hardship” is “utter disrespect” and he called it “despicable”.

It truly is.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said she was working with the minister of police, Bheki Cele, and State Intelligence in an effort to track down the criminals and bring them to book.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura tweeted this week that 41 suspects linked to the burning and burglary of schools in the province have been arrested.

It is mind-boggling how thugs do not respect state property, particularly schools.

The targeting of our schools by criminals is nothing new that is suddenly happening because the country is on a lockdown. Schools have long been targets of crime. When people are protesting for lack of electricity, what do they do? Burn down a school. When people are aggrieved because they do not have a tar road, what do they do? Burn down a school. When thugs are looking for a quick buck, where do they go? They break into a school.

What is perhaps most puzzling and shows isibindi (audacity) of these thugs is breaking and burning schools when law enforcement agencies and the South African National Defence Force are patrolling during the lockdown. Their disregard for the law is so brazen that they do not fear getting caught during a time when police visibility is high.

It is also worrying that people in areas where the schools are vandalised, burned and robbed do not see schools as their property that they should guard. The criminals that break and burn schools come from these areas. For example, the thugs that broke into the newly opened state-of-the-art school, Ethekwini Primary School in KwaMashu, are people who know that they would make off with laptops and e-readers. It is most likely people who were present when the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for education, Kwazi Mshengu, opened the school and announced the resources it has. It was not strangers from another area who decided to take a chance and see what they could steal.

Those thugs who have already been arrested need to spend time in jail and not get off with a light sentence. The law should make an example of them to discourage the next thug who thinks schools are the playground for their selfishness.

When the lockdown is over, schools will open and, besides worrying about ensuring that learners make up for the academic time that has been lost, provincial departments and teachers will also have to worry about providing the resources that have been stolen. One can only imagine the stress and worry the principals of the schools whose administration blocks have gone up in smoke must be under now.

This behaviour is appalling and can no longer go unpunished. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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