Ar­son­ists run amok as com­mu­nity reels

CityPress - - News - POLOKO TAU poloko.tau@city­press.co.za

Ten men and women stood guard around a warm­ing fire at the front en­trance of the Avha­tondwi Pri­mary School on Fri­day night. And while they chat­ted into the early hours of the morn­ing, ar­son­ists sneaked past them and petrol-bombed the main of­fice of the school in Vye­boom vil­lage, 8km from Vuwani, Lim­popo.

Yes­ter­day morn­ing, the group of par­ents watched in dis­be­lief at the class­room-sized of­fice. Its roof had caved in and the re­mains of its con­tents were still smoul­der­ing.

Yes­ter­day’s burn­ing brings to 25 the num­ber of schools torched in north­ern Lim­popo since the vi­o­lent protests started in Vuwani last week­end. At least 19 of the af­fected schools were com­pletely de­stroyed while oth­ers were partly af­fected. The amount of dam­age caused was es­ti­mated to be more than R400 mil­lion, said the depart­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion.

Hang­ing in the bal­ance is the ed­u­ca­tion of more than 60 000 pupils di­rectly af­fected by the on­go­ing at­tacks on their schools.

A res­i­dent guard­ing Avha­tondwi Pri­mary said the ar­son­ists – they have no idea who they are – didn’t seem to care whether they were guard­ing the place or not.

“The school was at­tacked ear­lier this week, but they only van­dalised it, break­ing win­dows, which led to a com­mu­nity de­ci­sion to guard the school from that day. We were stand­ing around a fire next to the school gate in the wee hours of the morn­ing when we sud­denly saw fire emerg­ing from the of­fice,” said a woman who asked only to be iden­ti­fied as a mem­ber of a school gov­ern­ing body.

“We later found out that th­ese ar­son­ists cut a hole in the fence at the back of the school be­fore run­ning in and petrol-bomb­ing the of­fice. We im­me­di­ately came run­ning, but they had al­ready fled and it was too late to save the of­fice with the fire al­ready rag­ing.”

The woman said they had or­gan­ised them­selves into shifts, and “re­lieve each other ev­ery few hours de­pend­ing on who has wo­ken up and de­cided to come through”.

“We will con­tinue guard­ing the school just in case they re­turn to try and torch the rest of the school. It would be good if the po­lice can join us here as we’re scared but are forced by cir­cum­stances to join men and pro­tect our chil­dren’s fu­ture.”

On the other side of Vuwani, in Mat­sila vil­lages, Chief Livhuwani Mat­sila said his res­i­dents were also or­gan­is­ing them­selves into shifts to guard their prop­erty. It in­cluded a guest lodge and chicken farm. Many oth­ers were guard­ing the schools.

“We can’t sleep when our schools and prop­er­ties are at the risk of be­ing de­stroyed. This whole thing has also re­sulted in trauma for the whole com­mu­nity in that we don’t feel safe and can’t move freely any more,” he said.

“I know po­lice have their own chal­lenges, but it would be great if we could have per­ma­nent se­cu­rity placed at th­ese schools in the night, which is when ar­son­ists at­tack.

“It is sad­den­ing be­cause while the com­mu­nity’s protest is gen­uine, they never planned to burn schools hence we be­lieve th­ese are pure crim­i­nal acts.”

Po­lice re­in­force­ments have been brought in from Free State, North West, Mpumalanga and Gaut­eng, and al­though there are many more of­fi­cers to see there, the area is vast. Ear­lier this week, 15 sus­pects were ar­rested in con­nec­tion with the burn­ing of schools. A fur­ther eight were ar­rested yes­ter­day.

Also burnt this week were two houses be­long­ing to vil­lagers whose neigh­bours be­lieve they sup­port the de­ci­sion to in­clude Venda-speak­ing Vuwani into the new Mala­mulele mu­nic­i­pal­ity, which con­sists of Tsonga-speak­ing vil­lages.

Roads bar­ri­caded with large rocks and tree branches kept the po­lice out and trenches were dug into roads.

The chaos be­gan last week­end af­ter a failed court bid to get the Mu­nic­i­pal De­mar­ca­tion Board to re­verse its de­ci­sion to re­draft mu­nic­i­pal bor­ders whereby more than 50 vil­lages around the small town of Vuwani would be moved from the Thu­lamela Dis­trict Mu­nic­i­pal­ity into Mala­mulele.

The res­i­dents have vowed to con­tinue their protest un­til they are al­lowed back into Thu­lamela.

Vye­boom Civic Or­gan­i­sa­tion leader Nsovo Sambo said: “Un­til then, the com­mu­nity of the vil­lages af­fected by the new bor­ders are not back­ing down. The peo­ple have de­cided that un­til the de­ci­sion is re­versed, the sta­tus quo re­mains.”

The ANC and govern­ment strongly con­demned vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion in Vuwani this week, and urged res­i­dents to re­spect the court’s de­ci­sion.

Co­op­er­a­tive Gov­er­nance Min­is­ter Des van Rooyen ad­vised the pro­test­ers to rather ap­peal the judg­ment in higher courts, say­ing the board was an in­de­pen­dent body in which govern­ment couldn’t in­ter­fere

But Sambo, and Venda King Toni Mphe­phu Ram­ab­u­lana, were un­con­vinced.

King Ram­ab­u­lana said the Vuwani mat­ter was “po­lit­i­cal” and politi­cians could in­ter­vene.

“I sup­port my peo­ple in op­po­si­tion to the new mu­nic­i­pal­ity. I will en­gage the Of­fice of Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma to look into a so­lu­tion as soon as pos­si­ble,” Ram­ab­u­lana said.

Chief Mat­sila agreed, urg­ing “govern­ment to con­sider all pos­si­ble op­tions that will bring sta­bil­ity in our vil­lages”. Sambo vows that the com­mu­nity will not go back to court and they ex­pected govern­ment to use its ex­ec­u­tive power to solve the prob­lem.

“Min­is­ter Van Rooyen would know be­cause he was the mayor of Mer­a­fong years ago when the peo­ple there fought for their mu­nic­i­pal­ity to be rein­cor­po­rated back into Gaut­eng from the North West,” he said.

“In the end, Mer­a­fong went back to Gaut­eng, thus end­ing two years of vi­o­lent protests in which Van Rooyen’s fam­ily house was burnt down.”

There was po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion too, Sambo said, when the de­mar­ca­tion board changed its tune and granted the peo­ple of Mala­mulele their own mu­nic­i­pal­ity af­ter they were first told it wasn’t an op­tion. Sambo said they were ex­pect­ing the same treat­ment.

“Our ar­gu­ment is, we never asked to be merged with any new mu­nic­i­pal­ity. Our govern­ment solved the Mala­mulele prob­lem and ap­peased com­mu­ni­ties there by cre­at­ing an­other prob­lem, and this time with us,” he said.

Sambo has, how­ever, con­demned the vi­o­lence, say­ing “a gen­uine protest by the com­mu­nity has now been hi­jacked by op­por­tunists and crim­i­nals”.

“Our res­o­lu­tion was a to­tal lock­down where chil­dren would not go to school and shops re­main closed. It was never part of our plan to torch schools which are our fu­ture,” he said.

“Clos­ing schools is a huge sac­ri­fice and it is not that we don’t love our chil­dren but be­cause we are fight­ing for them. As for ar­son­ists in our midst, we will be happy if they can all be brought to book.”

TALK TO US Do you think vi­o­lent and de­struc­tive protests are the way to go when a com­mu­nity is up­set about some­thing?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word SCHOOLS and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

PHO­TOS: LUCKY NX­U­MALO

FAIL­ING CHIL­DREN’S FU­TURES The area of Vuwani is in lock­down fol­low­ing vi­o­lent protests that have af­fected many schools, satel­lite po­lice sta­tions, tribal of­fices and mu­nic­i­pal trucks. Top left: Venda King Toni Mphe­phu Ram­ab­u­lana

ROCK­ING THE BOAT Res­i­dents are call­ing for more po­lice of­fi­cers to help them guard schools in the trou­bled Vuwani area. Top left: Chief Livhuwani Mat­sila

BURNT OUT Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Angie Mot­shekga vis­ited Vuwani, where ar­son­ists ran amok burn­ing 25 schools to the value of R400m

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