Jonathan Jansen: Abandoned by officialdom

Imagine you send your son or daughter off to primary school and you really do not know whether the child will come home alive at the end of the day. Throughout the day your child hears gunshots around the school.

It is so bad that the school has to install bullet-proof fences to prevent injury or death in the event a stray bullet hits one of the more than 1 000 children on the inside.

After all, children have been shot on their way to and from school, and sometimes even inside the schools of the area.

There are moments when the children have to duck, fall flat on the floor and stay there until another round of shooting nearby has stopped.

Until the shooting restarts and the children drop to the floor again, some crying openly out of raw fear that their lives could end at any moment.

Recently it got so bad that teachers were seriously traumatised.

One had a heart attack and another a stroke, for which they remain in hospital.

Children plead with their teacher parents: “Please do not go to school. I don’t want you to die, Mummy.”

Counsellors had to be counselled as they fell apart hearing story upon story of pupil and teacher trauma.

Working class parents had to take valuable time off from work to protest by shutting down the school until the police and the education department paid attention to a problem that will not go away.

The department says it is not responsible for managing the gangs and the deadly violence in the area, the local police do not have the resources or the capacity to deal with this problem short of national intervention.

Officials from the department of education arrive with police escort, and more than one of these officials had to scurry to safety as gunfire broke out around them. Yet nothing changes. In the meantime, the schools are held hostage to sustained violence over the years.

Gavin Alkana is the kind of principal who restores my faith in the power of leadership to change the fate of the poorest child.

Since he became principal of Hillwood Primary School in Lavender Hill on the southern Cape Flats, things have started to change.

A school hall was built after 40 years of waiting, thanks to one of those unheralded change agents in poor communities, the Garden Cities Archway Foundation.

Teachers who had long given up on hope started to express optimism with Alkana’s appointment after a string of temporary principals who simply could not take the pressure of leading a school under duress.

Enrolments started to pick up again after parents once abandoned the school for its academic reputation on the inside and the mortal dangers on the outside.

Suddenly there was order, predictability, direction and this elusive thing called educational leadership.

But even a good man has his limits.

When I call Alkana for this story, it is before 6am and he is already dressed to do a one-man picket on the main road connecting the fancy suburbs to the sandy beaches.

He will be back at school by opening time, but he is desperate to be heard by the authorities in this devastating wasteland of lives and learning lost.

I write this column today because I am angry at the lack of effective response to a deadly situation that faces our children every day. Let me be blunt. Why is it that nobody gives a damn? Is it because these are the children of the working classes and the poor?

Is it, department officials, because your children are safely ensconced in former white schools where a crisis is a child stumbling on the artificial hockey pitch?

Is it, officials in national government, that these people of the Flats are voting fodder not deemed worthy of priority attention in black majoritarian politics?

Or are you so callous as to leave a province that you do not control to the elements to make political advantage of this deadly situation?

Or have all of you simply lost your humanity in your preoccupation with looting the state and staying in power? Does it matter at all that our children die? Of course it makes no sense to expect anything approximating education to happen under such conditions of duress.

No child can concentrate, and no teacher can offer the emotional calm and deliberation required for efficacious teaching, and no principal can secure a school in the face of armed thugs. So what is to be done? Do not be fooled by politicking around this dangerous situation – like politicians going to Elsies River this week promising land, houses and more crime-fighting capacity.

These kind of smooth-talking snap visits after the tragic death of children have happened before and still nothing has changed.

We need a co-ordinated response of national, provincial and local resources to attend to the crisis.

In the short term, we need the army to secure the area and the police to end the gang wars.

In the medium term we need to provide the schools and the community with the resources (such as social workers and psychologists) to strengthen the provision of education in safe zones.

In the long term we need to rebuild these dangerous areas with job security and community rehabilitation that prevents young men from joining gangs.

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