Current struggles of historic school that Biko attended

| Daniel Linde
Fires have severely damaged Forbes Grant, a school Steve Biko attended. Photo by Daniel Linde.

Forbes Grant Senior Secondary School is not safe. The flimsy fence structure around the school is easily breakable. On the school’s perimeter, the fence has gaping holes in many places. In some parts, there is no fence at all.

Situated in Ginsberg, Forbes Grant’s halls are steeped in history. Both Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge were here. So was Steve Biko.

In his book I remember Steve Biko, Xolela Mangcu, who grew up in Ginsberg, writes that the phrase “we don’t play, we study”, were the words Biko chose when introducing his school to his close friend Larry Bekwa. Mangcu writes that Biko and Bekwa became the intellectual student leaders of the school, and Biko encouraged the principal to allow him and fellow students to conduct additional night classes. Biko’s older brother Khaya had been a keen reporter for the school newspaper.

Steve Tshwete was also here. In its biography of Tshwete, the website of the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDOE) says, “These [political] interests matured at Forbes Grant Secondary School in King William’s Town, which Tshwete entered in 1957. Here he was introduced to the ANC by the principal, H Mjamba, who did much to shape his political outlook.”

Tshwete was the school’s Head Prefect. At the time, he was already working underground for the ANC.

Today’s generation of Forbes Grant learners has retained a culture of political activism. Many are Equalisers – school going members of Equal Education. After school hours these young activists spend their time learning, organising and campaigning around their and their fellow learners’ right to education.

Forbes Grant equalisers also know that theirs is a long and difficult struggle for equal education. They attend school fearing entrance to the grounds by drug dealers and thieves, and much of the basic infrastructure their school needs has been stolen, time and again.

On 27 October, Lumkile Zani, the head of Equal Education’s new Eastern Cape office, and I met with the school’s principal, Mr Vani, and a delegation from the School Governing Body (SGB). The SGB had written to Equal Education about some of the problems the school is facing, and the ECDOE’s inadequate responses.

In March this year, two of the school’s science laboratories were destroyed in a fire. No repairs have been done. The remaining science lab is where we encountered Mr Faluyi, who was working through some maths exercises with two learners. Mr Faluyi is the school’s science and mathematics teacher. At Rhodes University, he had researched the history of Forbes Grant as part of his Master’s thesis, and his passion for teaching was as palpable as his frustration, as he showed us where the electrical wiring and Bunsen burners should be, but aren’t – a consequence of repeated thefts due to the easy access to the school grounds. Teaching science without these tools is not possible, he explained.

The March fire was the second fire at Forbes Grant in recent years.

Repairs to the damage caused by the first fire were undertaken. Still, because of the easy access to the school, efforts to improve conditions inside Forbes Grant are swiftly undone by theft. Much of the infrastructure installed during the previous repairs has been stolen. “R2.5 million is what it cost to renovate after the last fire”, Mr Ngalo explained. “That money is gone”.

With a neighbouring primary school now offering secondary school grades, many parents are choosing not to enrol learners at this historic institution. According to Principal Vani, the school currently has 467 learners. Ms Gcilishe, an educator and School Governing Board member, told us that Forbes Grant has capacity for 1,000, and showed us an entire block of the school where classrooms sit empty. Part of the reason for the low enrolment, Mr Gcilishe explained, is that parents know the school is not safe.

At the blocks where classrooms are used, the consequences of the lack of safety at the school are striking. These classroom have no doors, no window locks, no lights. Everything has been stolen. Learners strain to read the whiteboard in the dark, and classrooms are noisy as windows smash loudly back and forth against their frames when the wind picks up.

“If we had a proper gate, the parents would come together and arrange a security patrol around it”, another teacher tells us. Ms Gcilishe says it’s been three years since the school first approached the Education Department about the need for a secure gate.

Steve Tshwete is memorialised in the name of the building housing the ECDOE. Some 6.5 km away, at the school that sparked his participation in the struggle for a democratic South Africa, today’s learners are hoping to have their rights to security and to education protected.

Daniel Linde is Deputy Head of Equal Education’s Eastern Cape office, and an attorney with the Equal Education Law Centre.

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