From the death of six-year-old Michael Komape in a pit toilet at his school in Limpopo in 2014 to the recent deaths of four pupils after a bridge collapsed at Hoërskool Driehoek in Vanderbijlpark, the safety of pupils has come under increased scrutiny.
It was the latter incident which prompted Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi to convene a meeting at the Rhema Bible Church in Johannesburg on Thursday evening to discuss infrastructure maintenance and challenges in schools.
Gauteng education department spokesperson Steve Mabona said action taken by community members and parents in various schools around the province led to the meeting which included student governing body associations, principals and learner leaders.
“We encountered a challenge of school shut downs after the Hoërskool Driehoek tragedy. Schools in some areas including Tshwane, Kagiso and Rooderpoort were shut down by parents who demanded the MEC come and see them personally because they said the infrastructure of some schools in their respective areas was not safe,” he said.
Three learners died on the scene when a walkway collapsed at Hoërskool Driehoek and a fourth died at a local hospital after he succumbed to serious injuries days later.
Read: Death of high school learners needs accountability
Hoërskool Driehoek school governing body chairperson, Jacques Marx, told City Press that following the collapse of the walkway at his school, the entire school structure was inspected for any defects and none were found.
“Learners were permitted to use areas of the school except for where the walkway collapsed. We are still waiting for structural engineers who were inspecting the possible cause of the collapse to give us a report and we might receive it in the next two days,” he said.
Read: ‘We never saw it as a danger’- Principal on bridge collapse that killed four pupils
Lesufi said that schools in the province were becoming a death trap and if nothing was done more tragedies would bring shame.
“We [Gauteng education department] are aware that almost 190 schools are death traps and we as a collective need to work together to stop any more tragedies from happening at our schools,” he said.
Lesufi said that his department had secured a loan of R8.5 million from the market. His announcement was met with applause.
“This was a decision we took together with Gauteng premier David Makhura. By the year 2023 all mobile schools in the province will be history. In the next two years all asbestos schools will fall and we will build new schools,” the MEC said.
In reference to the schools that were shut down by parents and community members, Lesufi said: “I will never meet with a school governing body or any crowd that shuts down a school because they want to meet with me,” he said.
“Don’t use learners as a bargaining chip. If there is a need to shut down a school, let’s all agree.”
School governing body members, principals and learners were asked to disclose any infrastructure issues faced at their respective schools in writing and submit it at the meeting.
“Tell us what issues you are facing. We will appoint structural engineers who will be sent to check on those issues. We will then get a report back from them and issues will be prioritised accordingly,” Lesufi said.
“We would like to firstly look at schools housed at the oldest buildings.”
Gauteng education department head Edward Mosuwe urged school governing body members to work hand in hand with them.
“Preventative maintenance [maintenance intended to reduce the probability of failure] is our responsibility as a collective. If we deal with it ahead of time, we can deal with all other necessary maintenance. If we don’t do this, the buildings depreciate,” he said.
Amogelang Baijane, a grade 11 pupil at AB Phokompe Secondary School and the chairperson of the representative council of learners, told City Press that the meeting had given her a glimpse of hope for her school in Randfontein.
“Our schools are a mess. The toilets at our school, for instance, pose a health hazard to learners and staff. The school also has no secure barrier so drug dealers easily make their way on and off the premises. We currently don’t have a lab because it was broken into and tablets were stolen. We as a community had given up and thought that the government had given up on us but this might have proven us wrong,” she said.
Ndumiso Mnguni, principal at Menzi Primary School in Langaville, was also at the meeting and shared Baijane’s positive sentiment.
“This is exactly what I was expecting as a principal. When something happens, leaders should be proactive and that is what the government has done. To prevent tragedies and avoid danger to our learners, the government has taken action so that it doesn’t happen again,” he said.