More than 50 schools have been closed in the Vuwani area of Limpopo, affecting more than more than 60000 pupils, as fiery protests continue in the area.
Protesters have torched 24 schools. Five are partially damaged and 19 are in ruins, or badly damaged.
Chaos continued to rage as communities vented their anger over the Municipal Demarcation Board’s decision to incorporate their villages into the new Malamulele Municipality.
This morning, in a village called Vyeboom, a house belonging to a villager believed to be supporting the move towards the new municipality was torched. No injuries or fatalities were reported.
Yesterday, a school was torched in broad daylight in the village of Mashao Doli. Several villagers who witnessed the incident said a large group of people arrived at the school at about 2pm, forced the gate open and started breaking the windows of Mariadze Inclusive School. The school is fairly new - villagers said it had only been operating for about three years.
Flames were still raging when City Press arrived at the school.
“While we were still listening to the heart-wrenching sound of shattering windowpanes, then we saw flames from the principal’s office and the guard house. They then left running as the blaze grew bigger,” said one of the witnesses.
“We are saddened by what we saw because our own children are going to be the ones suffering but we can’t stop them and risk being attacked or labelled sell-outs. Truth is, as much as we are against being part of the new municipality in Malamulele we are responsible parents and sober enough not to support this acts of arson.”
The protests have elements of tribalism attached to them. Large parts of the Venda-speaking villages now commonly referred to as Vuwani are against the new demarcation while their neighbours, who are Tsonga-speaking, have no problem with it. More than 50 villages in the Vuwani area are set to be part of the new municipality which will have its headquarters in Malamulele. These villages want to remain in the Makhado municipality.
It was business as usual in Tsonga-speaking areas where shops were open and children were attending school.
A villager in Bungeni, which borders Mashao – a mainly a Venda-speaking area – said the community had taken it upon themselves to protect their schools against arsonists.
“We have been working in shifts of about 10 at a time, guarding schools around the clock after reports that there were plans to come torch our buildings here. We also have reports of a petrol bomb that failed to succeed in an arson attempt at one of the schools around here,” said Makhosana Sambo.
“We don’t have a problem being part of the new municipality that will include Malamulele, so we don’t see the reason why we should not let children go to school. We will not sit and watch people destroy our property and our children’s future like they are doing in their areas.
“It is clear that tribalism is the root of all of this, where people are not willing to be led by a certain tribal group that will dominate in the new municipality. People from all these violence-torn villages are not willing to be part of [the] municipality [because] they believe it would come with strong influence from Tsonga people.”
Meanwhile, police presence was beefed up in the volatile area. City Press came across police officers who said they were from the North West and saw vehicles from Mpumalanga and Gauteng.
The violence and acts of arson in Vuwani has been widely condemned from government departments, religious quarters, and by President Jacob Zuma and the ANC.
Among those calling for calm was the South African Human Rights Commission, which said: “People’s right to assemble, demonstrate and petition in an effort to advance their views must be must be exercised in accordance with the law and as such should not be exercised in a manner that results in the destruction of public or private property”.
“This right should be carried out with due regard to the rights of other people. While some protesters are free to advance their interests through assembly, demonstration, picketing and petitioning, resorting to burning of schools undermines the right to a basic education for thousands of children who are affected through these acts of arson,” the commission said yesterday.
It encouraged the Limpopo government and “all other relevant authorities to continue with efforts to try and engage with the protesters” and expressed concern that “the destructive nature of the protest will result in the diversion of resources that could have been spent on improving education facilities being spent on rebuilding of school infrastructure and replacement of learning and teaching materials”.
Meanwhile, Limpopo police spokesperson Colonel Malesela Ledwaba said they had made no arrests since the violent protests started on Sunday.
However, City Press spoke to a villager who said her brother was arrested.
“They came in, harassed everybody and arrested my 25-year-old brother, saying he was one of the people who burnt the schools,” she said, pointing to a broken door that she said was forced open by the police on Wednesday night.
“We’re still shocked and not sure what happened to him since he got dragged out of his bed and left with the police,” the woman said.
As a blanket of darkness started to cover the area last night, journalists were advised to leave for their own safety as roads were barricaded. It is believed that the barricades were meant to make it difficult for the police to access some areas in the sprawling villages, where most of the schools were burnt during the darkness of night.