Meet the feisty principal who wants compensation for building a school for the government

2018-03-07 07:46
Florence Dlamsha. (Jenni Evans, News24)

Florence Dlamsha. (Jenni Evans, News24)

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Cape Town – "All I want is some compensation for the 27 years that I built this school up," says 65-year-old Nyanga grandmother Florence Dlamsha, who has been accused of stoking a protest at Mvula Primary School over a pension dispute.

At the centre of the row is her handover of the school she started from donated pieces of corrugated iron in the bushes of Nyanga in the 1980s to educate and care for the children of black parents hounded by the pass-law obsessed apartheid government.

Without the paperwork required for black people to be in specific areas of the country, many of the earliest residents of Nyanga and Crossroads, outside Cape Town, lived in hiding in small structures in bushes, hoping not to be found and arrested. Their children were also not able to get into government schools because of this.

And with political violence raging around the community, parents also wanted to keep their children safe while they were out looking for work.

For more than 30 years, Dlamsha has built up what is today known as Mvula Primary School, starting with donated pieces of corrugated iron, and moving on to wooden poles and plastic and eventually getting volunteers to help level the site for containers and build classrooms from donated bricks. In addition, she lobbied relentlessly for funds from philanthropists, development organisations and foreign embassies.

But after more than 30 years' service to her community, and handing the school over to the Western Cape education department, last week News24 reported that the retired principal found that she only qualifies for five years of government pension.

READ: Retired principal's pension shock behind Cape school shutdown

Comment was not immediately available from Dlamsha at the time that story was published, so News24 went to Nyanga to seek out Dlamsha to hear her side of the story.

While many parents and residents have thrown their weight behind Dlamsha's claim that five years' pension was not enough for what she had done for the community when the apartheid government was not there to help, others, however, are angry that the schooling of more than 1 000 primary school children has been disrupted. This has apparently lead to Dlamsha having to leave her house.

In the safe haven of a friend's house, we were introduced to the 65-year-old, sitting on a couch with her shoes on the floor, next to her swollen feet.

"I started this school in 1985 as a community school," she explains.

"Then I ran the school for 27 years before the status of the school was changed into public."

In 2012, the once ramshackle school that had been transformed over the decades was signed over to the Western Cape education department.

"A few days before I signed the school over, my daughter died," sniffs Dlamsha as tears roll down her cheeks.

"We were under pressure. So we didn't read the contract – what it says – the content of the contract. And the contract was in English for the governing body to understand, and it was just drafted, [then] just given for us to sign.

"We donated everything to that department."

She said she received a payout at the time, and used it all to pay for her daughter's funeral.

When it was time to retire in 2017, she was shocked to discover that for all those decades of work she had accumulated just under five years' worth of pension since the handover.

"So my question is, how can a poor [person] donate to the rich?" she asked, referring to the school she handed over.

'It was a community school'

She says that because the school was previously known as an "independent" or "private" school, people assumed its bank account had the same amount as the Curros and Reddam Houses of the world, and that she was rich.

"It was a community school," she stresses, adding that fees were not charged, children were fed for free, and that volunteer teachers worked for a pittance for the good of the children.


Mvula primary school remains closed. (Jenni Evans, News24)

The school had relied on the goodwill of philanthropists to pay the salaries of the teachers and other running costs.

Many were not qualified, but they did their best, and studied part-time toward teaching qualifications.

Realising that they had no benefits, the teachers even started a separate trust account because whenever there was a death or a health emergency, they had had to somehow quickly raise the money to help, she said.

Dlamsha also wants to know where all that money is, and wants to know who will provide for the nine unqualified teachers who were replaced by qualified teachers when the department took over.

'It's not enough, I'm a breadwinner'

She said that in addition to keeping the school going, over the decades it was a constant task of upgrading, repairing, and getting people to volunteer their time or donate money.

And after building all of that up for the department of education, she does not have enough for her own twilight years, she says.

"It is not enough, I am a family breadwinner. I am bringing up four children, one at university," she said.

"If I was not a strong person, or God was not in my favour I would have died."

In an update, department spokesperson Paddy Attwell confirmed that Dlamsha had accumulated only five years' pension.

"The department may not compensate people who start private schools," he said firmly.

The handover of the school was done after the school applied to become a public school, he continued.

This included requiring the trustees to submit audited financial statements indicating that the school's finances were in order.

'Principal did not make adequate provision for her pension'

"It is worth noting that the school received a subsidy as a private school from the department, in line with policy. The subsidy in 2011/12 amounted to R4.2m," said Attwell.

The trustees responsible for the finances of the private school also had to finalise their accounts at the time, and disburse any funds owing to any individual.

However, the school governing body is insisting that the former principal receive payment in lieu of a pension.

Attwell said Dlamsha joined the public service as principal when the school became a public school. Members of the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) receive a pension based on their number of years of employment as a public servant, and their final salary.

"This means that the former principal is entitled to a pension based on five years' employment in the public service," he said.

"Unfortunately, it appears the principal did not make adequate provision for her pension while working for the private school."

The department's officials are still trying to resolve the issue.

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