Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has condemned the violent destruction, theft and vandalism of school property during the COVID-19 national lockdown, saying those responsible should be arrested and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies.
As of Sunday, 424 schools in South Africa were burgled and burnt down by criminals during the national lockdown.
According to preliminary police investigations, criminals were targeting schools for various items such as groceries, learning and teaching material, including Information, Communications and Technology equipment such as laptops and tablets.
Motshekga appealed to local communities to safeguard their schools and report suspected criminals to the police.
“We want to see the arrest and prosecution of every single criminal responsible for this kind of behavior”, said Motshekga.
So far, 44 suspects have been arrested in Gauteng, including those found in possession of stolen property linked to school break-ins in the province.
Education experts and teacher unions have expressed their disappointment at the escalating incidents of violent destruction of school property during the national lockdown and have called on law enforcement agencies to tighten security to protect national assets such as school infrastructure.
Traditionally, most schools are usually targeted during violent service delivery protests, which are more than an expression of voter discontent.
However, education authorities and experts who spoke to Inside Education this week said they were baffled as to why disgruntled South Africans would resort to burning schools in a country bedevilled by record-high inequality, unemployment and poor education.
Allen Thompson, chairperson of the National Teachers Union (NTA), said the teacher union was disappointed that so much vandalism of schools was happening during a health crisis that affected everyone, rich and poor.
“Our worry is that this is going to have a very negative impact on the recovery plan that we are currently crafting with the department of basic education and it is going to derail the education of learners further, beyond what has been done by the lockdown to our education system”, said Allen.
Executive director of the National Professional Teacher’s Organization of South Africa (NAPTOSA) Basil Manuel described the vandalism of schools taking place in South Africa as ‘tragic’, saying it robbed learners of a better future.
“People need to realize what is happening because what happens in a community when three or four schools in one community has been vandalized, and made almost useless, it means that this is robbing the next generation”, said Manuel.
Professor Mary Metcalfe said government needs to provide some geo-mapping of the schools attacked and painstakingly focus on those areas.
“If we see a pattern across the areas, this will help in a more systematic response to prevention,” said Metcalfe.
“We need to work with community structures to be able to develop a preventative response to these attacks on school infrastructure.”
Thompson said the NTA has already written a letter to the Minister of Police Bheki Cele and the Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, raising among others concerns that they thought that during the national lockdown period, the only people who are supposed to be active on the streets were members of the SA Police Services (SAPS) and South African National Defense Force (SANDF).
“Our expectation was that they were going to move around the government institutions which are more or less unoccupied right now. We have challenged them to apprehend all the people implicated in vandalism that our schools are finding themselves in”, said Allen.
The vandalism, theft and burglary of school properties come at a time when there is uncertainty on when normal schooling will resume as the cases of COVID-19 in South Africa continue to rapidly grow.
“Yes, I recognize that times are tough and there are difficult choices to be made, but we have seen how criminals in our societies have taken advantage of the current situation”, said Manuel.
“The Constitution guarantees the right of everyone to basic education and further provides that the rights of the child are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child. Actions to undermine these rights cannot be tolerated by any society.”
Motshekga said the damage caused due to vandalism of schools would obviously have a negative impact on the implementation of the proposed recovery plan once the lockdown was lifted.
Motshekga further asked for South Africans to work together with the department of education and the police to safeguard the future of school learners by exposing these criminal elements.
The department of education said police are still searching for the culprits behind these attacks.