Hillcrest kids face danger every day

Bullet holes adorn Helenvale school’s asbestos classroom walls, as rival gangs shoot across back yard

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At Hillcrest Primary in Helenvale, pupils as young as seven have to attend classes in asbestos rooms riddled with bullet holes.
Countless promises of brick classrooms at the back of the school have not been fulfilled.
“We live in fear for the day that a bullet will go right through and a child will die,” the chair of the school’s governing body, Rina Potgieter, said.
“Those classes are so old and I have lost count of the number of times we have asked the department of education to do something to make it safer – even if they can just build a brick wall to shield our children.”
She said there was some attempt to improve the back of the school but due to gang violence the contractor just dropped everything and left it there.
“We are asking the children not to play there,” she said.
“The school sits between two rival gangs’ territory and they shoot across the backyard at each other,” Hillcrest teacher Basil Stevens said, pointing out the bullet holes in the asbestos walls of the classrooms.
“We would be safer if this was a brick building.”
Stevens said the school had had to implement a safety drill to evacuate the children in the asbestos classrooms to safety when the shooting starts.
“We tell them to just move towards the safer buildings.”
He said the problem of these unsafe classrooms had been brought to the attention of the Eastern Cape education department, but to no avail.
“This part of the school is older than 40 years,” Stevens said.
“We have joined the safer schools programme and we are grateful for the help the department has given us, but the people who are patrolling are only members of the community.
“They don’t have any special training.”
They are very grateful to the police who patrol twice a day.
“The gangsters use the children to shield them. They walk among them,” he said.
“We found that it helps if the police look in.”
Stevens said their biggest problem was that the children from Helenvale were not afraid of gunshots. “Most will run towards the danger.
“Our safety procedure that we practise is that if you are in the classes at the back and they start shooting, you must move towards the brick building where you will be safe.
“The kids don’t hear the gunshots anymore. The teachers have to tell them it is time to move.
“We have, maybe, one or two little ones who are growing up very protected but they are in the minority,” he said.
Stevens said he understood the children’s thinking very well.
“When I was a youngster in Helenvale there wasn’t so much shooting but the guys who did illegal gambling would give us their things to hold when the cops came around,” he said.
“But when I got a bit older I realised that this is not a life that I will choose to live.”
He said they had so far, only through the grace of God, not lost a child in a shooting.
“One time the shooting came very close but luckily there weren’t any children around,” he said.
“We get social workers in to help us with debriefing because it is very stressful to work like this.”
Pastor Alain Walljee, who offers a trauma debriefing service in the area, said violence, crime and frequent shootings had become the norm in Helenvale.
“The young children haven’t yet realised they can be shot. They see shootings as exciting.
“It is a totally different ball game in their minds,” he said.
“Most of the people who live in Helenvale are beyond trauma debriefing by now.
“The children are like hardened police officers who work in specialist units and train with live rounds. You can’t debrief someone who is not afraid of being shot,” he said.
“Instead they want to grow up to be the guy who everyone is afraid of,” he said.
Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani said the matter of the need for brick classrooms had been referred to the district office for follow-up.
In August 2018, the Bhisho High Court ordered the department of education to replace asbestos, mud and wood structures at schools within three years.
The department of education has, however, said that it does not have the budget to do so as R2.8bn is required to attend to the 211 asbestos schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay teaching district.
In her judgment at the time, acting judge Nomwabo Msizi stated: “The crude and naked facts staring us [in the face] are that each day the parents of these children send them to school as they are compelled to, they expose these children to danger which could lead to certain death.
“This is a fate that also stares the educators and other caregivers in the schools in the face.
“The obligation on the [education department] respondent to provide basic education has been in existence since 1996 when the constitution was born, 22 years ago. Thus the [department] has had adequate time to plan and budget for all its duties in respect of the right to basic education.
“During the court case the minister of education said she was unable to make a commitment regarding the basic norms and standards for the infrastructure in public schools.
“This is unpalatable given that the requirement here is for a minimum requirement for basic infrastructure – nothing more, nothing less. It is also inconsistent with the constitution,” Msizi said.

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