Arsonists run amok as community reels
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.”
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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