State schools

Soweto residents repurpose abandoned public schools

It is almost unimaginable that these schools were once gems in their communities. Some of the closed and abandoned schools in Soweto now function as meeting places for drug addicts at night and host religious gatherings during the day.

A number of schools are in a state of disrepair, with most infrastructure vandalized or dysfunctional due to aging and neglect.

“Low school enrollment which falls below the threshold of a normal school was the reason for school closures,” Department of Basic Education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said. Daily Maverick July 7.

According to the Gauteng Department of Basic Education, schools were closed for three reasons: declining student numbers, multi-grade classes which led to inefficient teaching and learning, and schools located on land agriculture in rural areas..

Over the past eight weeks, Daily Maverick visited seven of these schools, including Matubeng, Lerechabetse and Phenyo primary schools in Moletsane, Soweto.

Schools closed also include Hlengiwe Primary in White City, Ithuteng Primary in Tladi, Lebowa Primary in Diepkloof, Bakgomana Primary in Diepkloof, Mabewana Primary in Mapetla East, Ndondo Primary in Rockville, Nkwe Primary in Meadowlands, Thesele Secondary in Moroka North and Thulare Secondary . in the center-west of Jabavu.

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Some of the schools, such as Matubeng Primary and Phenyo Primary, are partly used for religious services and other religious gatherings, while others, including Matubeng Primary and Mabewana Primary, are also used for residential purposes.

Mpho Chautsane (44) works full time making and repairing shoes at the closed Mabewana Primary School, one of the oldest schools in Mapetla, Soweto. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)
Mpho Chautsane at work in a classroom at Mabewana Primary School. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

Township entrepreneurship, child care, religious gatherings, gardening and even drug rehabilitation are some of the projects put in place by residents of some of the closed schools.

Young entrepreneur Ashley Matuneng, a tailor who works at Matubeng Primary, refused to speak to Daily Maverick during a visit to the school recently, although he said he had run his business from school for four years.

By contrast, Tirisano Primary School – which was merged and the few students and staff transferred to nearby Sekwati Primary School – was stripped by criminals before being demolished in early 2019.

The procedure

Gauteng Department of Education spokesman Steve Mabona described the procedure followed when public schools were closed:

“First, closed schools have in the past been returned to the Gauteng Department of Infrastructure Development (GDID) as all buildings belong to them. We have a policy that states that if a school administration decides to close a school, the [school governing body] convenes a meeting, the agenda, minutes of the meeting and attendance records of which must be kept.

“All parents must reach a consensus, after which a community meeting must be announced in the local newspaper and a community meeting organized, where the reasons for the closure or the intention to close the school are discussed.

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This decision should be supported by the whole community, he added.

The district director then drafts a memorandum with all documents attached, as evidence, after which the schools are officially deregistered following a 30-day notice placed in the print media.

Abandoned: Mabewana Primary School. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

“If no objections are received, GDE proceeds to draft the promulgation/declaration approved by the MEC to declare the school closed and state the reasons. It should be noted that the Department is reluctant to close schools and return them to the GDID. Schools are transformed into special schools or Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers or any other need in the community,” Mabona said.

Many Soweto residents, including those who live within walking distance of some of the closed schools, said Daily Maverick they had not been aware of the process of closing their schools.

Kelemogile Mogashoa runs an NPO at Matubeng Primary School, which also includes a feeding program and a drug rehabilitation centre. She asked permission for these from the school warden.

This classroom at Matubeng Primary The school is now a sewing studio, run by Ashley Leolo and her twin brother. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)
A feeding program is among the various projects currently being carried out from Matubeng Primary School. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

“I asked the caretaker if I could use the school and I don’t pay anything for the school except that I run the whole project out of my own pocket,” Magashoa said.

The school’s electrical infrastructure was still intact, but there was no water because “we still have to buy a water tap”.

“Never consulted”

In terms of South African Schools Act 84 of 1996, the community must be consulted before the closure of any public school. Under subsection (I), the member of the executive council may only act if he has held a public hearing on reasonable notice, to enable the community to make representations to him in connection with such actions.

The law further stipulates that the person responsible for closing the school must give due consideration to such representations received.

Ashley Leolo at work in an abandoned classroom at Matubeng Primary School. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

Many Soweto residents and former students have insisted they were not consulted before the schools closed.

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“I don’t remember this (the consultation) taking place,” said Phutheko Modirwa, a former pupil of Lerechabetse primary school and a resident of Moletsane. It is one of 26 schools announced to be closed by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in 2013.

“It’s a shame the school had to close, but we don’t have the power to challenge the decision…I’ve seen people at school but I don’t know what they are doing,” Modirwa said.

Thami Nkosi (59) from Moletsane said: There are three primary schools closed in my neighborhood and we were never consulted when they were closed.

Lerechabetse The elementary school is one of several schools in Soweto used by residents for various projects. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)
Lerechabetse Primary was one of 26 schools designated for closure by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in 2013. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

According to the Directorate of Basic Education, a primary school must have at least 135 to 310 pupils to be operational and the threshold for high schools is at least 200. This is provided for in the National minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure published in the Official newspaper.

‘Intimidated’

National Association of School Governing Bodies Secretary General Matakanye Matakanye said the association opposes the closure of schools and “instead, we call on the government to build more”.

“They don’t obey the law, they just intimidate communities by closing schools and moving students to distant schools, claiming they will transport them but don’t,” he said.


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Matakanye said Bakgomana Primary School in Diepkloof Zone 4 was an example where the department failed to provide transportation after the transfer of students and staff.

“Also, as we speak, children are out of school in Sedibeng district in Vaal,” he added.

According to the provincial ministry, during the school closures, “an audit was carried out of all school stock…which would be routed to the amalgamated school or, as needed, to schools across the province.”

The merged school would absorb students and some of the closed school’s resources in a process called “rationalization and redeployment” and received a lot of criticism as a policy.

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Mabona from the Gauteng Department of Education said this process does not affect teachers.

“Teachers who are deemed beyond the establishment of the school are normally deployed to schools where there is a need or remain in the same school to teach but as an ‘excess’ educator.”

These days Phenyo Primary school hosts religious services and other religious gatherings. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

Mhlanga, from the Department of Basic Education, added, “Streamlining, mergers and school closures contribute to streamlining education services that are necessary for effective learning and teaching.”

The South African Democratic Teachers Union, on the other hand, is strongly opposed to rationalization and redeployment. “Not in the country,” said general secretary Mugwena Maluleke when asked for the union’s opinion.

many failures

South African schools have struggled with inadequate operations and infrastructure for decades. Mud schoolsovercrowding, lack of books, Limpopo textbook debacleno electricity, no internet connection, no drinking water, low staff morale and shortage of teachers are just some of the failures of the education system.

Mpho Chautsane’s shoe making and repair business at Mabewana Primary School in Mapetla, Soweto. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

Earlier this year, a group of experts found that 80% of 4th graders could not read to understand.

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Often, to get the Ministry of Education to do what it should be doing, legal action is necessary.

In February 2020, the The Mthatha High Court ordered the Eastern Cape Department of Education to deliver 65 classrooms within 90 days after years of failing to build classrooms in four schools, some of which had nearly 100 students in a class.

Mabewana Primary School. (Photo: Gopolang Ledwaba)

In his research paper On the effects of downsizing and redeployment on the culture of teaching and learning, author Bharath Neresh noted: “From research, it is quite evident that the policy of downsizing and redeploying redeployment had a negative effect on the culture of teaching and learning. It became apparent that this policy was politically motivated rather than an attempt to improve education in the country. DM

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