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School denies fee exemption to woman because she’s an asylum seeker

Lawyer and provincial department say school is legally wrong

Photo of woman and child
Beatrice Ingabire with the youngest of her four children. Photo: Tariro Washinyira
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Parow West Primary School has denied Rwandan asylum seeker, Beatrice Ingabire (37), fees exemption for her grade three child even though she qualifies.

In December 2014 the school sent a debt collector to take her belongings because she failed to pay her school fees debt of R12,000, accumulated by her other two children. “When she got inside my house she was shocked with my living conditions. She wept bitterly and asked why the school was doing this,” said Ingabire. She says the debt collector wrote on her paper that the woman is very poor. She asked Ingabire to pay R100 each month. But she could only do so for two months.

“I have nothing; I am a single sick woman staying in a small room with four children,” she says. She receives some money monthly from the Wynberg Refugee Centre and handouts from her church. “I am about to be thrown out of the room because I failed to pay rent for two consecutive months,” said Ingabire. Despite having a chronic condition that makes it very hard for her to work, she does occasionally earn income by doing cleaning jobs.

In spite of her financial hardships, in January 2016, Ingabire was denied school fees exemption for her child. A letter from the school written in difficult to understand language gives three reasons:

First, she did not provide the child’s father’s details on her application form. But as Ingabire explains, the father has absconded and has nothing to do with bringing up the children. In fact, Equal Education Law Centre candidate attorney Amanda Rinquest told GroundUp that her organisation has a case in court “challenging the constitutionality of needing the father’s details if he is not involved in the guardianship of the children.”

Second, the letter contains a barely intelligible paragraph saying that asylum seekers do not qualify. According to two authorities GroundUp spoke to, the school has got its law wrong. Rinquest said, “Any learner in a South African public school who cannot afford fees, and who in terms of the regulations for fee exemptions qualifies, must receive a fee exemption of their citizenship.”

And Jessica Shelver, spokesperson for provincial education department wrote to GroundUp: “The policy on fee exemption applies equally to South Africans and foreign nationals.”

Third, the school also says she must provide a letter from the South African Social Security Agency, apparently showing that the children receive grants. As a foreign national, Ingabire does not qualify, and this too is not a requirement for fees exemption.

Letter from school
Letter the school wrote to Ingabire. Read a PDF version.

“The parents concerned may approach our district offices for help if they qualify for fee exemption, as required,” Shelver said.

Ingabire said when she last checked on the school fees bill in July for her grade three child it showed she owed the school about R4,200. She is surprised by the way the school is treating her case because, she says, other immigrant learners are getting discounts.

The principal of Parow West declined to comment.

Editor’s Comment

The letter sent by Parow West Primary School to Beatrice Ingabire is a model of how to treat poor people with contempt. Written in bureaucratic language, it must have intimidated Ingabire who is unlikely to be able to look up the points of law it refers to.

Yet the apparent authority of the letter is a mirage. It is incompetent, mostly unintelligible and wrong on the law.

The school authorities responsible for writing this letter and blocking Ingabire’s child from getting a fee exemption should be ashamed by their behaviour.

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