Even during the turbulent 1980s when schools and public property were the constant target of attacks – vandals knew better not to mess with our school Redibone Primary in Soshanguve.
The school in block F-West remained among those untouched by the vandalism that characterised life in the townships during those years of rising violent repression against opposition to apartheid.
Then, public facilities from street lights, government offices, road signs, beer halls, police mello yello and everything that was deemed to represent the state were regularly burnt down and damaged with the idea that doing so was striking a blow to the apartheid authorities.
During this period, schools seemed to have become the easiest and constant targets of arson, with entire administration blocks razed to the ground and windows and furniture broken. Classroom walls were converted into Struggle notice boards, littered with liberation slogan graffiti and crude sexual statements.
This targeting of schools then, may arguably have been as a result of the prevailing political situation at the time. The identification of schools as a terrain of Struggle post the 1976 student uprising may have had an impact as organisations like the Congress of South African Students [Cosas] used slogans such as Liberation before Education! to mobilise students as a force against apartheid.
To counter the vandalism of schools the apartheid regime went as far as erecting threatening notice boards on school grounds warning would be trouble makers of stern action should they be found ‘trespassing’ on the school premises.
They also deployed soldiers to keep guard on school buildings during and after lessons and the police kept regular patrols.
Redibone Primary school also had one of these notices written in Afrikaans and English somewhere near the main pedestrian gate.
But in reality the school didn’t really need such intervention by the authorities. The community was the school’s guardian and security guard. The school management, working together with parents, pupils and the community at large guarded the facility jealously.
The school property was revered by all, including the ‘comrades’, the active band of youth activists generally suspected to be behind the vandalism of schools.
Once, a section of the school’s fence was stolen during a weekend. On Monday, teachers rounded up all the pupils who lived adjacent to the section of the fence that had gone missing.
They were questioned and given a good hiding as was the norm in those days. That very morning the culprit had been identified. And with the help of community members the stolen fence was recovered and the offender made to fix it – after a lekke hiding.
It was another lesson learnt on the significance of taking care of our school which had a live in caretaker who doubled up as matshingilane after hours. This type of action went beyond vandalism.
Redibone pupils knew too well that misbehaving in public, particularly dressed in the maroon and gold uniform would reach the ears of the school teachers with devastating consequences.
Community members took pride in the school and its pupils and ensured to help protect it and its reputation. Added to the maintenance of some of form of social order and discipline in the prevailing situation where police were not trusted and policing was regarded as an extension of the state’s political machinery, was the existence of other community structures such as street committees.
Street committees derived from the Mandela-Plan cited in the Rivonia trial of 1963 were run by community members to resolve domestic disputes, deal with tsotsi elements and truant youth and to mobilise politically.
The street committees’ administration of justice included a potent dose of corporal punishment through caning in public – a humiliating method that was amongst their eventual unpopularity.
Those turbulent 80s are long behind us – yet the burning and vandalising of schools continues to haunt our communities.
In the latest wave of attacks Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced this week that 183 schools have been vandalised around the country since the Covid-19 lockdown was announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa three weeks ago.
At least 55 of the schools were in Gauteng, 72 in Mpumalanga, seven in North West and two in KwaZulu-Natal.
Motshekga condemned the incidents of vandalism, burglary and destruction of schools and said she was working with police minister Bheki Cele to get to the bottom of the incidents.
She expressed her disappointment over the scourge and said communities were supposed to be caretakers of the infrastructure that government had put in place for the education of children.
Perhaps Motshekga should have gone further to ask why communities are not ‘caretakers of the infrastructure that government had put in place for the education of children?’
This is perhaps the deep question the nation should ponder now more than ever. Yes, society has evolved since the days of street committees and public canings in the 80s.
But what structures have replaced these in township communities which are the ones most affected by this vandalism of schools that generally do not have the best of resources?
Perhaps the new culture of building high walls around township homes mirrors the general decline of that sense of community that existed during the pre-94 era; something sad and worrying, the rise of an individualistic, everyone-for-themselves culture.
This is the type of culture where a child is no longer the responsibility of every grown up member of the community.
This is a culture where individuals are loath to take responsibility for the protection of public facilities like schools, clinics and libraries because they feel no sense of ownership or belonging and fear being targeted for their stance.
This breakdown of the combative community spirit manifests itself in many ills in the townships – which are struggling to deal with among others the nyaope and alcohol abuse scourge among the youth.
Because of the decline of structures such as street committees township communities have increasingly looked up to an overworked, under resourced, poorly trained police service to deal with issues that require more than state policing.
This is part of the reason drug dealers have managed to infiltrate neighbourhoods and condemn their children to hopeless addicts. It is common knowledge now that a large percentage of a generation of black township youths has fallen foul of this drug scourge, right under the watch of communities that at some point in history would cane an adult passing a cigarette onto a child.
Even violence in schools has left communities paralysed, helpless and looking to the state for answers. Communities fear their own children. Teachers too have been forced into a fearful silence by mere children who come from these same communities.
Of course, it is ultimately the responsibility of the state to ensure its citizens are safe and those who commit crime are locked up.
But the reality is that not even a well-resourced and properly trained police service can win the war against crime if the community it serves is itself broken and indifferent to the troubles it faces.
Various quarters including the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools have called on government to probe the recent wave of vandalism in schools.
Maybe they should also add that communities themselves should also do the same – and try to answer the difficult question why are schools being vandalised under their watch?
They must ask why criminals find it so easy to walk into their schools, steal computers and burn entire blocks with such impunity. They must ask themselves why their own children attack teachers and one another in school.
If there was ever a time communities had to do serious introspection and follow that up with action to save their schools and themselves, it is now.
During this lockdown period, communities have to use all available communication resources to revisit the past, analyse it, refine and implement some of the elements that worked back then into the present.
If the communities like F West could do this to protect Redibone Primary school during a time of violent repression – surely this can be repeated in the present. – Mukurukuru Media