After having shut down businesses and schools for three months, and boycotted the elections, Vuwani communities in Limpopo reluctantly ended their protests this week.
Business owners started counting their losses in income, expired stock and accumulated debt. Some were seen cleaning their stores with their doors fully opened on Friday. Public transport also started operating in Vuwani’s sprawling villages.
However, it may take some time for education to get back into full swing after more than 20 schools were torched and others were damaged at the height of violent protests.
Communities embarked on a protest in early May, demanding that the municipal demarcation board reverse its decision to have Vuwani areas incorporated into the new municipality with Malamulele and Hlanganani. They wanted to remain in the Makhado municipality.
Besides those learners whose classrooms were damaged, learners who could return to school were also forcefully kept away as part of the shutdown – even after government spent millions of rands acquiring 76 mobile classrooms, which were delivered to affected schools in the area within days after the classrooms were torched.
In Vyeboom – one of the areas that participated in the protest – community leader Nsovo Sambo sang a new tune on Friday, telling City Press that they were organising a special day on Monday to prepare pupils for a new school term.
“They have been away from school and some have seen the infrastructural damage. They will return to a different environment and we thought they might need some motivation, after all this time at home,” Sambo said.
“We are working on getting people to counsel [the children] to prepare them psychologically for their return to school. We have asked some departments to help make this day a success and will invite motivational speakers to inspire the children.”
Schools will officially open on Wednesday, once classrooms have been cleaned and new furniture delivered. Basic education department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said that cleaning of schools had started and community members were helping to assemble new desks that had been supplied to replace the damaged ones.
“Correctional services has agreed to remove rubble at the schools and help to clean classrooms,” Mhlanga said, adding that the department had met teachers to discuss recovery plans and it was agreed that teaching for grades 4 to 12 would continue over the September break.
He said an assessment schedule would ensure that all schools met the minimum requirements of Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements for pupils to proceed to the next grade.
Most of the Vuwani community members who City Press talked to said they were relieved that the shutdown had ended – but were careful not to criticise the action, although it had affected them.
A repairman in Vuwani said he lost business during the lockdown. “I made barely R60 a day. My family depend on this business, but for the past three months it was tough for us.”
A foreign national shop owner counted his main losses in having to throw away perishable groceries over the three months because of slow business.
“Shops were sometimes opened on weekends, but we did not open because it was still tense in the area. We have seen in other protests around the country how foreign businesses can be looted, so we stayed away until after the elections. I am glad it is over; I can only hope it is really over,” he said.
A 17-year-old Grade 11 learner from Mashau village who asked not to be named said he could not wait to get back to school. However, he said he could not stop thinking of the collapsed roof and flame-licked walls in his classroom at Vhudzani Secondary School.
“I am not confident about passing. Even if we are pushed to the next grade, I doubt we are going to be ready for matric next year,” he said.
“I stand with the community, but why punish us? Why delay our future, when all we want is to go to school and rescue our families from poverty? I pray that this does not happen again – ever.”
On Wednesday, most residents chose to have a party and play soccer rather than vote. This led to 10 stations in the area producing zero votes as no one showed up. On Thursday, community leaders seemed to believe that their point was made and announced the suspension of the lockdown.
“We all hate violence and decided on a shutdown with heavy hearts, but we had to do it. Now government has a chance to make things right,” said a middle-aged woman from Vyeboom.
In a signed agreement with Vuwani traditional leaders last week, government undertook to “set a process in motion ... to redetermine the outer boundaries of Vuwani within 14 days of the municipal council being declared elected”.
Sambo said the community was hopeful that their area would be reincorporated into Makhado municipality. “We leave the processes now in the hands of our senior traditional leaders ... We will wait for legislative processes to unfold,” he said.