The long walk past freedom

2014-08-03 15:00

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These children walk 14km to and from school daily, past the half-built campus they dream of occupying. But after R11m spent so far, the school is still a shell. Poloko Tau makes the morning journey with them.

At 5.30am on a chilly Thursday morning, there are lights glimmering through the windows of a few Altein homes.

The village, just outside Malamulele in Limpopo, is slowly waking up. Scores of school kids with bulging bags on their backs are pouring on to the dusty, rock-strewn main road through the village.

From here, 300 or so children and teenagers will walk about 7km to reach Mtititi High School in the neighbouring village.

They will dodge traffic and keep their eyes open for wild animals that have wandered out of the Kruger National Park’s Shangoni Gate. There are also human ­animals to contend with – some pupils have been attacked by thieves who hide in the thick, dark bushes alongside the road.

They will also pass the school that was supposed to end this daily trek: modern buildings equipped with science and computer labs, an administration block and safe, flushing toilets.

The Fumani Secondary School project cost the Limpopo department of education R11 million. But three years after ground was broken, the children of Altein pass a school full of classrooms with doors, half-built rooms and incomplete toilets.

And they keep walking.

“There is no use polishing my shoes because that will only attract more dust. If I could, I’d have two pairs – one for the walk and another to wear when I get to school,” says 17-year-old Glen Bila, who is in Grade 10 at Mtititi High.

He prefers to walk alone because the others slow him down. His shirt is wrinkled and dusty.

“I am not complaining. I don’t need to look good for this walk, and our parents are tired of buying new shoes every three months or so,” Glen says.

“It is even sadder because we know we shouldn’t be walking this long distance.”

Mashaba Hletelo (17) still isn’t used to the “gruelling” walk, even though she’s been doing it for four years. “I pray daily for our school to be completed so that for a change I can walk into a class with my hair shining and not covered in dust.”

Noel Sithole, who has two children at a school in Malamulele, says he spends R800 a month on transport for them.

“About 200 Altein pupils are lucky enough to get expensive private taxis and buses to schools like Mtititi. Others can’t afford transport and this whole thing is a great torture for the children. They leave home very early in the morning when it is still dark and get back home when it is almost night on wintry evenings.

“Most of them attend Saturday classes, which means they walk about 60km every week, resting only on Sunday,” Sithole says.

Despite the long walk, Mtititi’s pupils are thriving academically. Last year the school recorded a 97% pass rate for matric.

“If they can perform this well after walking such a distance, how well could they do if it were shorter?” asks parent Richard Msecho.

Fumani Secondary is one of “about 12” school construction projects that have simply been abandoned by contractors in Limpopo, says the education department.

“Some projects were not awarded properly but in the case of Fumani Secondary, the contractor did not do his job and funding had to be stopped,” says Limpopo education department spokesperson Jack Mokobi.

“We are now waiting for a funding agreement between education and public works so that [the latter] can complete the project.

“We are pushing to have it finished and ready for the 2015 school year.”

The owner of construction company Xiluva xa Mina, who identifies himself as “N Nxumalo”, says he has had problems with the department over outstanding payments and has abandoned three projects as a result.

He also had contracts to build schools in Makhado and the Vhembe district.

Last week he told City Press: “There was a meeting and everything has been resolved. I am going back to complete the projects.”

But he wasn’t on site this week and efforts to contact him proved fruitless.

Parent Noel Sithole says the contractor called one of the project’s community steering committee members and said he was coming back tomorrow.

Mokobi, however, says he is not aware of any agreement between the department and a contractor.

“I don’t know where the contractor got that because we’re working on getting public works to take over all incomplete and abandoned projects.”

For now, though, the children of Altein keep walking.

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