No home away from home

2008-04-18 00:00

Children staying in boarding houses around Pietermaritzburg had a number of complaints about their living conditions when The Witness spoke to them (see story on page 1). In addition to their complaints, an absence of outdoor recreation space and inadequate storage facilities were observed during visits by The Witness to a range of these establishments. The children’s belongings seemed to be stored in suitcases under their beds.

In many of these places bunk beds were crammed into every available space: lounges, dining rooms, outbuildings and even a double garage served as sleeping accommodation for 20 boys. While some pupils said they have their own beds and share space with five or six others in small rooms, residents of an establishment in Northdale complained of having to share a bed with another child. For many boarders, their bed is their only personal space. It is where they eat, do their homework and try to study. This absence of quiet study facilities was one of the main complaints made by senior school pupils, as was the noise made by junior school pupils. One pupil lamented: “We have nowhere to study and the young children are playing and making noise all the time.” While some residents’ homework is supervised by the boarding house owner or a house mother, many complained of having no help or supervision.

Pupils recited a litany of complaints regarding access to toilet and bathroom facilities. Many spoke of broken toilets, baths and showers, forcing them to compete for access to the limited facilities available. They also complained of limited access to hot water or no hot water at all. “The school transport leaves at 6 am so I get up at 4.30 am to wash because there are only a few buckets for all the children. We get only one jug of hot water to wash with,” one child said. Many senior school pupils, both boys and girls, spoke of having to do their own laundry, while most junior school pupils, particularly boys, had theirs done by domestic workers.

Food is another major complaint from many of the children. Some said although it is acceptable, there is seldom enough and they often feel hungry, particularly the adolescent boys. Many complained of having only bread and tea for breakfast, and bread again for lunch. Some complained that sometimes the food is so bad they just cannot eat it.

Another major difficulty for many pupils is transport. Because the boarders at most establishments go to a range of schools, they are transported in several loads. Some children spoke of arriving at school very early, while others said they are often late. Some pupils complained of only getting back to their boarding house when lunch was finished, or of being left at school sometimes until 6.30 pm. Some senior school pupils are given money and have to take public transport, while the juniors are transported. Some pupils walk to school.

Most pupils described strict evening curfews and supervision of junior school children on weekends. However, many senior school pupils are allowed to make unsupervised visits to entertainment venues, shopping areas or malls.

The pupils attend a range of primary and senior schools in the city and northern suburbs, including Rosefern, Northdale, Suncrest and Forest Hill primary schools; Heather, ML Sultan, C21, Kharina, Silver Heights, Northbury Park and Woodlands senior schools and Copesville Combined School.

What the neighbourhood residents say

Residents of Prince Alfred, Holliday and Doig streets in the city have complained to the Msunduzi Municipality about three illegal children’s boarding houses operating in their area.

Neighbours are angry about Lighthouse boarding house at 383 and 385 Prince Alfred Street, and another at 390 Prince Alfred Street, reportedly called NTM boarding house.

They lodged an official complaint with the municipality in January and submitted a petition signed by 22 people. A resident of Prince Alfred Street, Mohammed Sader, said the area is a residential area and not zoned for special usage like boarding houses.

He said the municipality claimed to have served notice on the boarding houses to apply for rezoning. “But it has not acted as it should or complied with its own regulations. It should close down the boarding houses and not allow them to continue operating while they apply for rezoning.

“These places are intrusive and have diminished our privacy and quality of life,” said Sader.

“There is a lot of noise late at night and more traffic as buses transport the children to school. On the weekends there are taxis, playing loud music, that come for the children late into the night. Our children cannot walk in the street without being harassed by residents of the boarding houses. Our security is also compromised as there are often people hanging around and we cannot tell if they are residents or outsiders.”

Lighthouse opened at the start of school this year and reportedly accommodates about 150 primary and senior school boys. NTM houses about 35 girls. The pupils attend schools in the city and northern suburbs.

“We are preparing for a court battle, if necessary,” Sader said.

The owner of the properties where Lighthouse is situated, Ayesha Cassimjee, declined to comment and referred The Witness to her tenant and the alleged owner of the boarding house, Fiona Pillay. She did not respond to several messages left on her cellphone. Pillay reportedly owns a third boarding house in Boom Street. Attempts to contact the owner of NTM were also unsuccessful. There is reportedly a second NTM establishment in West Street.

The official position

According to Evodia Mahlangu, spokeswoman for the office of the Msunduzi mayor, there are currently no boarding houses registered with or approved by the Msunduzi Municipality (see news story on page 1).

She said the municipality is dealing with some establishments that are operating without approval.

“We encourage the public to report problems associated with boarding houses which will be investigated and the necessary action taken.”

She said that based on past complaints, notices had been served and some boarding houses were closed down, while the owners of others were prosecuted. A few boarding-house owners have applied for special consent to operate a boarding house.

Mahlangu said that boarding houses are supposed to be registered with the Department of Social Welfare and Population Development as “places of care” (Child Care Act, 1983) once they have met all the municipal requirements involved. These include the physical conditions of an establishment like health and hygiene requirements, fire and safety measures, as well as the quality of care that children receive, including nutrition and the ratio of caregivers to children.

Margaret Niemand, acting general manager of Social Welfare Services at the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Social Development, said that the term “place of care” in the Child Care Act, 1983, appears to have been interpreted as referring specifically to pre-school children. For this reason, her department does not register private boarding facilities.

New legislation, the Children’s Act (2005), was passed last year but is not yet implemented as the regulations have not been finalised. This act will ensure registration of private boarding facilities as it differentiates between partial care and early childhood development.

The 2005 act also sets down basic requirements, such as play space, sanitation and clean drinking water, etc. The Minister of Social Development is expected to provide more detailed guidelines for registration. For these reasons, the local department does not have recommended or approved establishments. Niemand said the department has received a number of complaints about boarding houses and investigates by visiting to ensure that children are not being ill-treated or abused. However, “as we have not yet registered the facilities, they are not monitored on any regular basis”.

According to spokespeople for both the national and KwaZulu-Natal education departments, they have no jurisdiction over boarding houses because they are private businesses. Parents of the children who board in them sign contracts with the owners of the boarding houses.

Most of the boarding house owners contacted by The Witness either refused to comment or would only do so off the record. Louette Munusamy, owner of Grace Boarding House in Scottsville that houses 62 children, said: “It is very complicated to register with the municipality as it is hard to find the right person to talk to, but I am trying to get registered.”

Philisiwe Zungu, the owner of Learn and Play Pre-primary school and boarding house in the city seemed unaware that she required municipal permission for her establishment. She has run the boarding house since 1996 in a 100-year-old house. She provides lodging for 43 children, mostly from the Eastern Cape. Zungu lives on the property with her own children, managing the boarding house and caring for the boarders herself, with the help of domestic workers. Zungu said she supervises the children’s homework, attends meetings with their teachers in place of their parents and takes them to church on Sundays.

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