OPINION | Sibusiso Khasa: Impunity for school vandalism poses threat to children's education

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Several schools were vandalised when unrest broke out earlier this month in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.
Several schools were vandalised when unrest broke out earlier this month in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.
Rajesh Jantilal/AFP

More R300 million damage was caused when 140 schools were looted in the recent unrest. Sibusiso Khasa writes that attacks on schools are nothing new and if action is not taken, it is unlikely to stop.

Pupils across the country returned to school this week for the start of the third term. Some children in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng returned to damaged schools after more than 140 schools were looted and vandalised during the recent unrest. Libraries, textbooks and stationery were set alight, water supplies were destroyed, water tanks and electrical wires were stolen, and school fences were torn down.   

The Department of Basic Education has put the financial cost of this at over R300 million.

Replacing these stolen items and rebuilding the schools takes away much-needed resources that could have been used to address other problems in the sector.  

This is nothing new in South Africa.

Attack on our children's future

Last year alone, over 2,000 schools were looted and damaged. The main concern is that these crimes often go unpunished. During her address on 24 July, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, correctly condemned this as a "senseless attack" on the education infrastructure. But it is more than that. It is an attack on the children's future and a direct assault on their right to a basic education which is entrenched in the country's Constitution.

Several studies by the government and organisations like Amnesty International, have well documented the issue of poor infrastructure in the education sector. In 2018, out of 23,471 public schools, 19% had only illegal pit latrines for sanitation, with 37 schools having no sanitation facilities at all; 86% had no laboratory; 77% had no library; 72% had no internet access; 42% had no sports facilities, and 239 schools had no electricity. The looting and vandalism are exacerbating the problem.

READ | Several Western Cape schools vandalised, burgled over school holidays

While Motshekga dedicated a fair share of her speech to these criminal acts, there was no mention of whether any arrests were made in relation to this looting and vandalism. It is also unclear whether some of the over 3,000 people arrested for participating in the recent unrest were responsible for this damage to the education infrastructure. What is clear is that over the past few years, this has been allowed to continue with impunity.

In 2016 more than 30 schools were torched during violent protests in Vuwani, and there was little to no action from the police. 

The impact of these criminal acts is affecting children's education and has a negative impact on other rights, such as the right to have access to sufficient water, the right to security, and the right to health. Water is even more critical during this time of Covid-19. The destruction of key water infrastructure increases the risk of children contracting the virus. Tearing down school fences, which are meant to ensure the safety of children and teachers, puts their lives in danger. While the government's call for communities to help protect schools is a noble one, it is the government's responsibility to protect, promote and fulfil these rights. 

Spike in vigilantism

Government must also play its part and stop outsourcing its responsibilities to community members. The dangers of doing that have already been seen during the recent unrest, with a spike in vigilantism. Making sure that those who loot and vandalise schools face justice in fair trials might not stop these attacks but will deter some would-be offenders. 

READ | #UnrestSA: These are some of the schools that were looted in kwaZulu-Natal

Even Motshekga previously acknowledged that impunity was a major contributing factor to this problem. "It is quite disheartening that criminal elements in our communities could destroy the infrastructure of their own children with such apparent impunity," she said last year. Teacher unions such as the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa have also been complaining about the same problem. 

What needs to happen for the government to treat this matter with the urgency and seriousness it deserves? Maybe we need to have that conversation as a country. If we do not see practical action from the government, particularly law enforcement agencies, these acts will continue unabated.

- Sibusiso Khasa is Amnesty International South Africa's campaigner.

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