Kids’ hell away from home

2008-04-17 00:00

As schools reopened this week many children returned to face another term of grim boarding conditions. Children are being crammed together — in some cases 20 to a room — in illegal boarding houses in the city by unscrupulous landlords who charge their parents up to R1 000 a month.

The children appear to be falling through the cracks in a situation where desperate parents from as far afield as the Eastern Cape accept dubious accommodation, and authorities are either unwilling or unable to take a stand.

“Last year I took my seven-year-old daughter to … be accommodated and schooled in Northdale. I left my child … to be taken to the boarding house, I did not see it. [When I went there] I was horrified by what I saw,” wrote a Matatiele mother in a letter to The Witness, prompting our investigation.

“The boarding house was filthy. About 15 children were crowded into one small room. My child was cut on her chin and had sores on her body and the children in that yard wore dirty clothes. My child was told to wash her clothes for herself like other older children. Most children there are from the Eastern Cape.”

Like hundreds of other children across the city and northern suburbs, this woman’s child was a boarder in a private boarding house. The boarding house apparently operated, like tens of other similar establishments, either without municipal permission, or with its tacit permission.

One boarding house owner alleges that the Msunduzi Municipality knows about many of these illegal businesses, but chooses to turn a blind eye.

In order for their children to attend local schools, large numbers of parents in the Eastern Cape and outlying areas of KwaZulu-Natal pay between R650 and R1 000 a month to private establishments. Often, their children are inadequately accommodated and poorly cared for.

Several old houses in the city have been turned into boarding accommodation, for example, in Burger, West, Boom and Prince Alfred streets.

Some boarding houses take only boys or girls, but most accommodate both boys and girls, and both senior and primary school pupils. They house the genders and age groups in separate sleeping accommodation on different floors or in different sections of houses and outbuildings.

Although municipal regulations reportedly limit to 14 the number of children who may be housed in this way, boarding houses accommodate anything up to 150 children.

While some owners live on the property or employ house mothers, other homes appear to be run by domestic workers on behalf of owners who live elsewhere.

The Witness talked to pupils who stay in 10 different boarding houses in the CBD, Northdale and Newholme. Boarders at two of the establishments felt that they were adequately accommodated and cared for.

However, similar complaints emerged from residents of the others: cramped sleeping accommodation, nowhere quiet to do homework or study, a lack of adult supervision, inadequate toilet and bathroom facilities, poor quality and insufficient food, and problems with school transport.

Most pupils said their parents had not seen where they were staying and would not be happy with the conditions if they did.

Joan van Niekerk, national co-ordinator of Childline South Africa, said: “We are very concerned about this phenomenon and have heard some real horror stories. Discipline is sometimes problematic, with strong negative sanctions for behaviour.

“Children don’t report the situation as they lose access to the school they attend. Parents don’t report [the situation] either because they feel they have no other options to have their child attend a school in town.

“We have had reports from neighbours and try to follow up immediately by reporting to the nearest Social Development office.

“People running these ‘hostels’ are making a killing. They charge about R500 and upwards per month, and provide minimal care and food. Transactions are usually cash, so that the income is tax free. The Education Department must take a more active role here.”

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