Dawn of a new hope

2014-04-07 08:00

Bongani Chauke (13) and his 12-year-old friends, Zinhle Nkosi and Neo Segage, are taking us on a tour of their old school?–?but it looks nothing like a place of learning.

It is a dilapidated white house flanked by two shacks made from planks on Westoe farm about 20km from the town of Amsterdam in Mpumalanga.

One shack was a staffroom and the other a kitchen. There’s a rusty, hand-propelled borehole in the yard and two foul-smelling pit toilets.

Until last year, the three children and 507 other farm workers’ children walked kilometres at a time every day to reach schools like this in the Piet Retief area.

Zinhle sighs and says: “We’ve finally found freedom.” The children are now boarding at a state-of-the-art, fully equipped school worth R189?million.

Izimbali Combined Boarding School in Amsterdam has 21 classrooms, a science laboratory, a computer room, 40 toilets, a soccer and rugby field, and tennis and netball courts.

The pupils have been brought together by the Mpumalanga government from 10 farm schools.

They get three healthy meals a day, which their parents cannot provide from the pittance they earn working at the surrounding crop and livestock farms.

Zinhle says: “I can concentrate on my lessons now because we don’t have four children sharing one desk. It’s either you’re alone at your desk or there’s two of you.”

Neo says that at Westoe, the grades one to seven classes were all crammed under one roof.

“We shared textbooks and had to spend time playing while teachers were busy teaching the other grades,” Neo says.

Bongani is delighted he does not have to get up at 5am to walk for an hour to reach school. He says he used to miss class when it rained.

Izimbali principal Samson Nkosi says the children arrived earlier this month to start settling into their new environment, and the serious business of teaching and learning will begin in earnest at the start of the second term.

“What the government did for these children is unbelievable. They saw water taps for the first time and we had to teach them how they work. In the next term, they will know our system and have adapted,” he says.

The school offers grades R to eight classes. A new grade will be introduced each year between now and 2018. Izimbali’s primary focus is on teaching maths

and science.

The school governing body chairperson, Simon Thanjekwayo, is himself a former teacher. He says a heavy burden has been lifted from poor parents’ shoulders.

“Parents are generally happy, but those with very young children in Grade R are concerned. We have volunteers taking care of the young ones.

“Teachers and community development workers are also assisting with cleaning the dormitories,” Thanjekwayo says.

This “small heaven”, as Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza describes it, started with a visit to the Mkhondo Local Municipality by Mabuza and education MEC Reginah Mhaule three years ago.

The two were in a helicopter and the coordinates suggested there were schools on the ground below.

But when they peered out of the helicopter’s window, they saw no buildings that resembled schools. On the ground, they drove to take a closer look and saw nothing but shacks and mud structures.

Mabuza remembers: “I was touched in such a way I had to compare their structures to any [former Model C] school.

“Those children were definitely doomed to fail before they could even start going to school. I called all the parents and told them I would take all their children and put them in a boarding school.

“They complained and asked who would look after their cattle and help them with their households chores.

“We are doing this because we want to stress that there is no child who will be deprived of education because we want them to look after the cattle.

“These children have their own future,” Mabuza told the worried parents.

Two similar schools are being built in Emakhazeni (Belfast) and Zakheni (Piet Retief) to accommodate more farm workers’ children.

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