On 1 February 2019 disaster struck at Hoërskool Driehoek in Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng, when a concrete walkway collapsed, killing four pupils and injuring more than 20.
There’s a picture on his office wall of the white “tent town” on the sports fields where classes were taught for the first three months of his tenure as headmaster. He was the one tasked with keeping traumatised staff focused and teaching equally traumatised children that it was possible to get back up after such a tragedy.
Before becoming headmaster, Ricardo Erasmus (56) had been a teacher and vice-headmaster of the school that he’d come to love over the years. He’s strict, loves sport, and committed to his community.
But then the concrete walkway collapsed shortly after assembly on 1 February and six weeks later, then headmaster Hein Knoetzé (60) retired. Suddenly Ricardo was handed the reins of this deeply traumatised school.
“It was a chaotic time,” Ricardo recalls, a year later.
The weeks following the disaster were hugely challenging. First, the school was closed for two weeks. But then classes had to go ahead despite the emotional aftermath staff and pupils still had to deal with. Because the walkway needed to be repaired and the rest of the school’s structure inspected for possible weak points, tents were erected on the sports fields as classrooms.
“The teachers were allowed back into the building once after the incident to fetch their stuff from the classrooms. While we were teaching in the tent town, no one was allowed into the building,” Ricardo tells YOU.
It was a challenging time. The highveld summer rains beat down on the tents, and everyone felt unsettled as they attempted to resume a normal academic routine.
“I recall one day in particular the rain beat down into the tents. You have to understand, just a month before a walkway had collapsed. Then it’s raining hard and the kids are slipping on the grass and the anxious parents are phoning the school.
“Several pupils needed trauma counselling. Every day, locals and church groups visited to offer support, but for us as management the situation felt like a pressure cooker,” Ricardo recalls. “You know things don’t feel right but we needed to try forging ahead, just so things could get back to normal.
“It was especially hard on the teachers. As management, we felt we couldn’t [be slack] – the pupils needed to catch up academically. So we were always asking the kids, ‘Are you keeping up? How far are you behind?’ We started using assembly periods to catch up on work.”
The walkway was repaired and on 23 April last year it was declared safe. But first, parents and pupils were invited to walk over it hand-in-hand for peace of mind.
Now, a year later, pupils are crossing the new walkway on a daily basis. But though all seems normal on the surface, the memory of the trauma isn’t gone.
As we chat to Ricardo in his office, the phone rings intermittently and every now and again someone knocks on his door.
First, he was interim head and in September he was permanently appointed as head. Apart from the picture of the tent town, there are also pictures of him with his family on the walls – his wife, Elbé (56), and sons, Ricardo Jnr (30) and Marco (28).
It was a tough year. Apart from the walkway tragedy, many parents at the school are affected by retrenchments at ArcelorMittal in the Vaal Triangle.
Yet despite all this, the school managed a matric pass rate of 98% – better than the previous year.
“There are 1 050 pupils in this school and of course I can’t know exactly what each of them is thinking. But it seems we’re back on track. There aren’t any panic attacks anymore.
“At the end of last year I could see there was one boy who was really struggling. But it’s understandable as he’d lost his best friend – you don’t just forget something like that.”
On the morning of the disaster Ricardo led assembly and was on his way back to his office when the first-storey walkway linking the hall to the classrooms collapsed in front of his eyes.
He recalls some of the teachers and older boys trying to free kids from under the rubble, how he’d opened the sports fields’ gates and waited for the ambulances to arrive. How he’d fetched a loudspeaker in order to be heard over the chaos, before heading back to the sports field to wait for the medical evacuation.
“It was hectic, from the moment that thing collapsed. I was eventually standing outside in the light drizzle wondering, ‘Why has this happened here?’”
He recalls the Sunday following the disaster when he and three governing body members attended a counselling session at a local church.
“I looked at the three men with me and told them, ‘Yes, we were there. But I don’t think it was worse for us than for a mom or dad who didn’t know what was going on’.”
He pauses for a moment, becoming emotional as he thinks of the pupils who lost their lives: Roydon Olckers (17), Marli Currie (14), Jandré Steyn (13) and Marnus Nagel (16).
He needs no reminder that it’s been a year since that awful day.
“You know. It’s always with you. Counselling helped most of us, but not all of us. But I know you can’t just check out – you need to look ahead. Life goes on.”
That’s why he’s already planned the message he’ll be delivering on Friday, 31 January during the memorial service. “[It will be a reminder] To comfort each other and to remember – but also to move on with our lives.”
Sculptor Jacques van der Westhuizen’s artwork, due to be unveiled at the ceremony, will hopefully become a place where future “Hoekies” can come to lay a wreath or just spend a few minutes in quiet contemplation.
The retired headmaster
Hein Knotzé (60) retired on 15 March last year – just six weeks after the tragedy that claimed four lives.
He’s since moved to Tergniet, near Mossel Bay in the Western Cape, with his wife, Ina.
But he says he travels the country, delivering motivational talks about finding hope in the midst of tragedy at schools and churches.
“Something like this changes you, it deepens you,” he explains. “Each time I speak to people about it, I’m intensely aware of what happened. It becomes a part of you, something you have to live with. Or rather, live through.”
His core message to his audiences is, “Live each day to the full because none of us know what tomorrow brings.”