Unequal education: the plight of Westlake students

Students travel 15km to school even though much better ones are nearer

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Photo of car picking up children
A car stops to pick up Westlake school students hitchhiking over Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Masiphumelele High in 2014. Photo: Masixole Feni

A car stops on Ou Kaapse Weg. The driver opens the door and shouts: “Masi!” A bunch of kids by the roadside rush forward. Whoever is first, gets a ride to school. These kids are unable to pay the fees for schools nearer to home; they must travel great distances to get to a non-fee paying school in Masiphumelele.

In 2014, GroundUp told the story of students from Westlake and Capricorn who hitchhike up Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Masiphumelele High approximately 15 km away. They all hope to get to school before gates close at 8am. If they arrive late they miss the first period or are even sent home sometimes.

There are at least eight schools closer to the two communities. The nearest is Reddam House, a private school walking distance from where the students live. The school provides an art scholarship every year to one child from a disadvantaged background.

Other nearby high schools include Sibelius, Crestway, Zwaanswyk, Steenberg, Muizenberg, Healthfield. Fish Hoek and South Peninsula are somewhat further away than these, but still easier to get to than Masiphumelele High.

The students are black African and poor. Masiphumelele is an entirely black African no-fees school, while the other schools mentioned above, which all offer a much better education than Masiphumelele, consist of mostly coloured or white students. Westlake is a mostly affluent white area, with a small mostly low-income black area. All the students interviewed here live in shacks.

Lakheli Bongindlala, a grade ten student in Masiphumelele, stays in Capricorn and says he sometimes has to hitchhike twice to get home. He says in the morning he and his fellow students use public transport to get to school. “We walk from Capricorn to Steenberg station to catch a train and then catch a taxi in Fish Hoek to school. It’s better because we get to school early but if we hitchhike we get there late and miss some of the classes or sometimes we are told to go home.”

The single trip using public transport costs R15. He cannot afford the R30 roundtrip.

He moved from Khayelitsha to stay in Capricorn and says he was scared of starting Afrikaans in grade 9 as he had never done it before. So he decided to attend Masiphumelele, where he does not have to study Afrikaans.

Bongindlala, who stays with his father and two brothers, says his father cannot afford to pay school fees at the nearby schools. “I would love to attend a school close to home, if only they did not have school fees and had Xhosa as a language. I would have more time to look at my school work now. I don’t because sometimes we come home very late and have to wake up very early,” he explains.

Two students from from Westlake who travel together every morning and afternoon, Yonela Mdaka and Andisiwe Kobese, both have one parent working. They say they would not have minded going to the schools nearby but their parents cannot afford the fees.

Yonela applied to two other schools nearby as well as fee-paying Thandokhulu High School in Mowbray — where a few Westlake children attend — but her mother was not able to afford transport and school fees. She and her mother decided Masiphumelele would be the cheapest option.

She and Andiswe went to Westlake Primary, which consists of mostly coloured and black African students, and teaching is in English and Afrikaans. Both enjoy Masiphumelele High now but had difficulty learning Xhosa as a subject when they started, because they had not done it at primary school, even though it is their first language.

Safety

Yonela’s mother, Nomfundo Mdaka, is a single parent of three. “I was hoping when they built the primary school they would also do a high school for the community … Our nearest schools are expensive and the majority of us cannot afford it,” Nomfundo says.

“If I could afford it I would have liked her to go to a nearby school because she had no problem with Afrikaans as she attended a primary school where it was taught as a second language. We do not have our own home and therefore rent in a backyard,” she says.

Nomfundo works in Sun Valley, close to Masiphumelele, and takes the same daily route as her daughter. Once she got a lift with a driver who tried to sexually assault her. She says she worries everyday about her child’s safety: “They can’t take phones to school so they have no way of contacting us should there be any problem.”

Andiswa’s mother, Qondiswa Kobese, says only her husband works and they have five other children that they support and therefore would not be able to pay for the school fees in some of the schools.

“I worry everyday when she is at school. I do not know whether she will come back safe. I want my child to get education but at the same time I feel like I am putting her life in danger. We did try to organise transport for the children but it was too expensive. Others would charge us R600 [per month] and we couldn’t afford it,” she says.

Qondiswa says that one day Andiswa came back from school telling her that someone who had offered her and Nomfundo a lift drove into the bushes and asked them to kiss him.

“I was so hurt because I do not know what will be next. She was in danger and I was not there to help her. What if he had raped them? I looked for a family in Masiphumelele that could host her but I am still unsuccessful,” she says.

Western Cape Department of Education spokesperson Jessica Shelver says there is no bus route from Westlake to Masipumelele. “The Learner Transport policy applies to learners in ordinary public schools in rural areas of the Western Cape which are five kilometres or further from the nearest appropriate school and where no public transport is available,” she explains.

GroundUp reported that some people have been trying to raise money for a bus to transport the Westlake children. But this has not yet materialised.

Fees at nearby schools

Although the nearby public schools charge fees, parents can apply for exemptions.

Shelver says parents qualify for exemption if the school fees are more than 10% of the parents’ combined annual salary. They can also apply for partial exemption if the fees represent between two and ten percent of their annual salary depending on the number of children they have at a fee-paying, public school.

GroundUp asked five parents if they had applied for fee-exemptions at the nearby schools, but none knew they could. No one mentioned to them that this was possible when they visited the schools.

School officials in the area we spoke to confirmed they offer fee-exemptions. Parents have to ask for a form at the school. There is then a verification process to determine if the child qualifies for a full or partial exemption, or none at all.

An official at one school said although they offer fee exemptions, they prefer to get students who can afford to pay, because they don’t get funding from government to cover the fee-exempt students.

Sherylle Dass, an attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre says it is unusual that the language policy and the socio-economic status of the schools in the area don’t reflect the local demographic of that area. She says usually you would find students migrating out of their area because they are seeking better resourced schools and higher quality education.

She says: “The inability to pay schools fees should never be a barrier to education. Parents who cannot afford to pay fees at these schools have a right to apply for a fee-exemption. It may be that they have either been discouraged from applying for a fee-exemption at these schools or they don’t know that they have a right to do so.”

Photo of students hitchhiking on Ou Kaapse Weg
Students hitching on Ou Kaapse Weg in 2014. Photo: Masixole Feni

We recommend The Problem We All Live With, a podcast on This American Life about school integration in the United States.

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