Snakes in the classroom

| Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik
Classrooms at Amatolaville Primary School. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

A school caretaker falls into a pit toilet and struggles for an hour to get out; snakes invade a primary school classroom: it’s just another day in Eastern Cape schools.

In November 2013, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga approved the regulations relating to minimum uniform norms and standards for public schools infrastructure. Two years later, many schools in the Eastern Cape still lack classrooms and proper toilets.

GroundUp joined Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) on a visit to Amatolaville Primary School in Stutterheim, Kalalo Junior Secondary School in Mtata District, Nojongile Junior Secondary School in Dutywa, and Nzima Senior Primary in Butterworth.

At Amatolaville Primary, GroundUp’s interview with school principal Ivan Mentoor was interrupted by school children screaming outside, some running, shouting that there were snakes.

Mentoor said this was what he dealt with almost every day; when pupils saw a snake, they had to move to another class.


Ivan Mentoor, principal at Amatolaville Primary, Stutterheim, in his office. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

Nomathuse Daniel, a grade two teacher, said she was still jumpy after students saw a snake the previous day. “Sometimes they are small but there are times we get big snakes … Remember, this is a primary school; we cannot expect kids to kill a snake.”

“This is a very sad situation, the shack walls are broken and our classes are overcrowded,” she said.

Another teacher, Nombulelo Burnes, said “The snakes are terrorising us and once you see it you won’t relax the whole week.”

“We no longer wear high heels. We must make sure that we wear takkies when we come here,” she said.

Burnes also said she had recently left her classroom after the wall fell over while she was inside teaching.

The school is built from shacks and some brick classrooms donated by NGOs or built by parents; pupils call the school amatyotyombe (shacks).

Mentoor said he had knocked on many doors asking for a new school, but all he got were empty promises.


A classroom at Nojongile Junior Secondary School in Dutywa. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

Teachers and pupils complain about the conditions of classrooms, and even about snakes that enter classrooms during lessons. Pupils also complain about the heat.

“This is not a school. When it rains, we are forced to move around the classroom looking for cover because the roofs are leaking,” said one pupil.

The school has close to 1,000 pupils, from grade R to grade 7.

Mentoor said, “Since 1999, I’ve been fighting to have a new school. It is not the case that the education department is not aware; they know the conditions of the school but they turn a blind eye.”

“As much as we are dedicated and pushing for our kids to get better results, these conditions demotivate our teachers,” he said.

Grade 9 student Aphelele Mgidi said the school conditions made him uncomfortable. “I sit next to a crack. When it’s raining, I have to move my desk to the other side and I do not think it’s fair … I’m here to learn,” he said.

Kalalo Junior Secondary, in Mqanduli, in Xhorha township next to Mthatha, is built of cement blocks and mud. The school is overcrowded and short of classrooms. The toilets have been dysfunctional for a long time and the school resorted to building pit toilets.


School caretaker Mntondini Saphepha of Kalalo Junior Secondary in Mthatha. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

School caretaker Mntondini Saphepha recently fell inside one of the pit toilets.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. “It was around five in the afternoon. I was patrolling, checking if everything was in order … The toilet floor is made of wood. As I was standing up, one wood fell down. I could not balance; I fell inside the toilet.”

“Only my neck and head [was out], my whole body was inside the toilet,” he said.

He cried for help but realised that he was the only one left at the school.

“I was there for almost an hour. I thought I was going to die, but luckily I’m not scared of water. I pulled myself up,” said Saphepha.

“This is a very old school. Government was supposed to build us proper toilets like other schools in cities,” he said. “The smell in those toilets is unbearable. Imagine being stuck there for an hour.”

“The school informed the district offices about the incident but they ignored them. I still demand an apology,” he said. “I was lucky that I didn’t break my leg; I had minor injuries. I went to the clinic and was given medication.”


School Principal Sinqibo Njaba of Nojongile Junior Secondary School in Dutywa. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

Nojongile Junior Secondary School in Dutywa is also a mixed structure of blocks and mud. The school starts from grade R to grade nine and has 180 kids.

School Principal Sinqibo Njaba said among his challenges are overcrowded classes and a lack of teachers. Some classes have two grades in one class, some even three grades in one class.

Njaba said his school was one of the abandoned ones.

“We have only five teachers. This school was built by the community in 1987. Classes are leaking. In winter we have to shift places just to make sure that pupils are safe. When it’s hot, we have open classes under the trees. Each teacher teaches nine subjects in two classes,” said Njaba.

He said he had tried but got no help from the Eastern Cape Education Department.


Equal Education’s Lumkile Zani and teacher Nombulelo Burnes at Amatolaville Primary. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

EE has also sent letters to the Provincial Departments of Education raising serious concerns around the deficiencies in the school infrastructure regulations.

“It has been almost two years since the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure (the Norms and Standards) were promulgated into law on the 29th of November 2013. Since then, EE, with the assistance of the EELC has written a number of letters to the Minister, raising serious concerns over vagueness and loopholes in the wording of the regulations,” said EE.

There had also been a delay in releasing the provincial implementation plans, which are required by the new law.

According to the EE statement, these implementation plans were due by 29 November 29 last year, but were only released to the public in June this year after months of letters, protests, marches and sleep-ins led by EE members.


The pit latrines at Kalalo Junior Secondary in Mthatha. Photo by Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik.

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