Disabled pupils’ hostel of horror
Date Released: Mon, 2 September 2013 15:59 +0200
It’s literally a case of the blind leading the blind at the crumbling Setotolwane special-needs school.
There are no handrails along the paths between the classrooms and the hostels at Limpopo’s Setotolwane Secondary special-needs school, so when blind pupils walk on them, they cling to peers who can see better.
I see some of them walking four abreast on the path, one holding another one’s sleeve, who is holding another one’s elbow, and the third student holding the fourth one’s upper arm. Near them, a herd of stray donkeys stands listlessly.
“It’s happened before [that] a blind learner has walked alone and then walked into an animal and got hurt,” a grade 12 pupil tells us.
What was once a grand teacher training college is now a school for 291 blind and/or deaf pupils in Limpopo, school governing body members tell the Mail & Guardian.
“It was never meant to be for special-needs children,” governing body member and parent Matshidiso Malapela says. “Our children don’t get the right education. They are not safe — just look at the hostels, the holes in the fence.”
The school is at the end of a rutted dirt road, in rural Setotolwane village, 20km out of Polokwane.
The governing body contacted the M&G through rights organisation Section27 to tell the story of a school “that the department doesn’t care about”, according to Malapela.
Our first port of call at the school, the neat administration block, belies the infrastructural decay in the rest of the buildings.
Through the fence on one side of the school, one can see empty, flat Limpopo bush. On the other side is Setotolwane village’s cemetery. Beyond that, goats, cows and dogs roam around the dirt yards of small houses.
It is quiet, except for the occasional incoherent shout from a deaf pupil.
The principal does not want representatives of the M&G to be there, but allows us access while accompanied by governing body members. He warns us not to speak to staff or pupils.
Trash swirls at the entrance to one of the boys’ hostels and there is graffiti on the walls. The lights in the corridors are dim. A pupil with partial eyesight bumps into one of the governing body members, then into me.
Many of the dormitory windows are broken and the pupils have filled the holes with pieces of plastic and cardboard. It is not enough to keep out the cold, so they put rusty lockers around their beds to keep the wind out. Going into a dormitory is like walking into a maze.
Water leaks onto the floors of the bathroom and the toilets are soiled and stinking. A basin hangs off the wall, unusable.
A matric pupil, who wished to remain anonymous, tells us they have never had hot water in the bathrooms. They have to boil water in kettles and bath in a bucket.
Music pumps down the corridor. It is coming from the dormitory of a blind matric pupil. The 24-year-old sits alone in his room on the edge of his bed changing the channels on his radio. He snaps his head from side to side, dancing to the music.
On a wall in one of the many empty dormitories is written: “Love is sometimes like a rocking chair, u feel comfortable but going nowhere.”
The wind howls through an empty common room at the end of the corridor where once there was a door. There is not a teacher or matron in sight. “The learners can go into each other’s hostels whenever they like,” says another matric pupil who wishes to remain anonymous.
“Last term, a robber went into the girls’ hostel with a gun and stole their cellphones.”
Although it is only break time, like all the other pupils we have seen, he is not wearing a uniform.
Also last term, a pupil allegedly raped another pupil, governing body chairperson Lauren Maake tells me. It would not be the first time.
“People come from the outside also and do it,” she says.
Malapela says the “house mothers” and “house fathers” do not care for the pupils. Tsakani Mbiza, the sister of a grade eight pupil at the school, says some of them are in the hostels only during the day.
It is not surprising, then, that each year, some of the pupils fall pregnant, according to the governing body.
They are not all teenagers either, Malapela says. The oldest pupil at the school is 38.
We walk past what was once a laundry, with rows of broken taps, to see a hole in the fence about 50m from the hostel’s back door. A well-worn path leads to what Mbiza says is a tavern.
“Look how easy it is for the pupils to get there and for outsiders to get in,” she says standing in the gap.
Security is a grave problem at the school, Maake tells me.
“There are only two security guards at one time and they don’t patrol the grounds, they just stay at the entrance.”
A female pupil says she is “scared of the rapes”.
“It feels like we are in the desert, away from everything.”
Space is not a problem on the school’s sprawling property. Some of the buildings stand derelict and filled with trash or rusted furniture, kitchen appliances or computers. A goat feeds on weeds growing up through the floor of one of them.
The school’s motto is: tsebo ke maatla, (knowledge is power), but not all the pupils are getting the knowledge they need.
A matric pupil says there are not enough teachers who can use sign language and not enough textbooks to go around.
Mbiza says her deaf brother’s language skills are “very bad”.
“He can’t construct sentences. When he sends me text messages I can’t figure out what he’s saying.”
Limpopo education department spokesperson Phuthi Seloba said only 11 of the 23 pupils who wrote matric at the school last year passed.
Teaching and learning at the school are “negatively affected by the teachers’ lack of skills regarding Braille and sign language”, he said, but the department offered empowerment programmes for pupils across the province with visual and auditory disabilities.
Another governing body member, Rufus Chauke, said the department had promised since 2009 to move the school to a more suitable location in Mankweng, near Turfloop (the University of the North).
“Whenever we raise an issue with the department we don’t get feedback,” he said.
“That is why we involved Section27 and the media. Maybe they can help us. Maybe, finally, things will change.”
But Seloba said the department had met the governing body and the infrastructure issues were being attended to.
“The allegations of neglect and ignorance are baseless,” he said.
The department was “finalising renovations at Hwiti High School in Mankweng for the relocation of Setotolwane and it should be ready for occupation anytime soon”.
Photo Caption: Derelict: Setotolwane special-needs school’s infrastructure is neglected, with broken hostel windows, nonfunctioning toilets and no hot water, while the safety and security of pupils is threatened by holes in the perimeter fence and by a lack of railings and lighting on pathways to guide the blind and partially sighted. Photo by: Skyler Reid
By: VICTORIA JOHN
Article Source: Mail & Guardian
VICTORIA JOHN is a Rhodes University graduate