Nondzame Primary School location dispute: Update reports

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

04 August 2010
Chairperson: Ms M Makgate (ANC North West)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee had previously heard of disagreements between Nondzame Primary School (the School) and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) over the relocation of the School to part of the premises of Pniel Primary School. The Committee had previously conducted an oversight visit and furnished a report to Parliament, the Deputy Minister of Education and the MEC for Education in the Western Cape, hoping to achieve a solution to the dispute. A representative for the MEC now gave the full background to the situation, and reported also that after a series of other events, the School had eventually been relocated to Pniel Primary School premises, although it was not integrated with it, that certain of the School Governing Body (SGB) requests had been met, but that the principal, having refused to accede to requests or comply with a directive, had been suspended pending a disciplinary hearing. The main concerns of the SGB revolved around the parents’ wish that the School should not be integrated nor opened up to learners of other cultures, and the fear that the move would do just this. The School had had to relocate since its former premises could no longer be leased by the WCED, but there was some dispute whether its preferred alternative site was or was not available. There was also some dispute whether the WCED had acted fairly in proceeding with a meeting in the absence of the principal. Submissions were made by the principal, and officials of the WCED, as well as a member of the SGB.

Members decided that there were too many disputes of fact for the Committee to reach a decision. Members asked that copies of documentation be provided, and that details be given of how long the temporary state of affairs was likely to continue. Members took note of the principal’s passion for the School but noted that the interests of the children were paramount and it was necessary to assess whether the relocation was in the best interests of the learners. Members asked that the WCED should follow up the questions raised around the site that the School favoured, that proper procedures must be followed, asked why the WCED had not communicated with the Committee, and asked what steps had been followed to date. It was agreed that the Committee must hear from all stakeholders, and, in light of several policy issues that were raised, Members agreed that the Minister and MEC should be summoned to answer questions. A Member suggested that in the meantime the suspension of the principal be lifted, but no decision was taken on this point. Finally, new issues raised by the principal should be addressed in writing to the Committee.

Meeting report

Nondzame Primary School location dispute: Update
The Chairperson outlined that the reason why Parliamentary Committees would conduct oversight was in order to allow communication between and build links between the people of South Africa. Parliament was the voice of the people. In addition, she reminded those present that it was within the Select Committee’s rights and powers to take provincial interests through to the national sphere. Its rights included the right and duty to do oversight.

The Chairperson briefly summarised the background to the matter, and the circumstances leading up to this meeting. The Committee had received correspondence that outlined the frustrations and challenges that Nondzame Primary School (the School) faced. The Committee made a decision for an oversight visit, and this was done on 14 October 2009, a report was tabled before Parliament, and that report was furnished to the Deputy Minister of Education and the Member of the Executive Council of the province, hoping for a speedy response.

The MEC, however, had been furious about the report, saying that the Committee had no right to become involved in the province. The Chairperson pointed out that she did not require permission as this was the duty of the Committee. The MEC then promised to provide a briefing and communication around the matter.

Subsequently, however, the Committee had received a letter from the principal of the School, saying that the School had been closed and the principal had been suspended. The Chairperson was dismayed that the promises made by the MEC did not transpire. She concluded that there were now serious challenges, and that the Committee could not permit the future of learners to be compromised.

Mr John Lyners, District Director-General, Western Cape Education Department, tendered the apologies of the MEC and stated that the sentiments expressed by the Chairperson would be conveyed to the MEC.

Mr Lyners stated that the School had not been closed. It was open and running, with 66 learners and 2 teachers. He sketched the background. This School had been situated on a site belonging to Boschendal Estate, and WCED had entered into a lease agreement with Boschendal to rent the land where the School was located. This lease had expired on 31 December 2009. The WCED was informed about this, and had been asked by Boschendal to relocate the school. Negotiations were started, but the WCED was unable to find an alternative and wrote to Boschendal asking that the lease be extended until 30 June 2010. This was agreed.

Further negotiations then proceeded with the School Governing Body (SGB), the Stellenbosch municipality, the Anglican church in the area of Langdorp, Boschendal Estate management and the Pniel Primary School Governing Body. The only negotiations which bore fruit were those with Pniel Primary School, who was willing to share some classrooms that it was not utilising. The Nondzame Primary School Governing Body urged Mr Lewis to discuss the position of Erf 521, Langdorp, since that Governing Body was thinking of acquiring an erf and building a new school.

WCED reverted to the Nondzame SGB, describing what had happened and setting out that none of the negotiations were successful save for those with Pniel Primary School. The Nondzame SGB, however, made it clear that it wanted to operate quite separately from Pniel Primary School. The WCED assured Nondzame SGB that the classrooms that it could utilise were far away from the main body of Pniel Primary School, and that the WCED was also prepared to erect four mobile classrooms.

On 28 May the Nondzame SGB advised that the SGB and Principal had declined the offer to relocate. A circuit official went back to the school to talk to the principal, but the offer was again rejected. The Head of Education (HOE) was then asked to give instructions to the Principal of Nondzame Primary School to relocate, since all other options had been exhausted. Nondzame SGB indicated, in a letter received on 7 June, that it did not agree with the decision of the HOE. On 8 June the WCED went back and explained to the Principal that the School had no option. The principal replied “ I want my own school....I am refusing to move... I will ignore the instruction.” The HOE was briefed about the outcome of this meeting. On 10 June, the WCED noted its wish to take disciplinary action against the principal. The HOE told the WCED to go back and negotiate again, because disciplinary action was not reasonable. However, then the schools closed for the holidays, and the WCED could not contact the principal.

A meeting was set with the Committee for 29 June, and some members had been present. WCED sketched the background and assured the Nondzame SGB that this school need not fear being usurped or merged with Pniel Primary School. The School’s new location would cut the distance that must be covered by the pupils. The WCED undertook to shift 2 mobile classrooms to the new location, so that there would be 6 classrooms for 66 students. WCED explained that Nondzame, although sharing premises, would be set up as a separate entity. Nondzame SGB made further requests, such as erecting a sign with the name of Nondzame Primary School and fencing it in, before it was prepared to re-locate.

WCED finally managed to make contact with the principal on the day that the schools had re-opened. At this time the principal refused to relocate, and also stated that the Nondzame SGB had not agreed to relocate to Pniel. WCED then issued an instruction, on 16 July, to relocate to the new premises by 20 July, in the interests of the learners. On that date there was no re-location as ordered.

Mr Lyners stated that the principal was the only person who stood in the way of progress. As a result, disciplinary action was taken against that principal and she was subsequently suspended from her duties until further notice, although she also refused to adhere to that suspension. She was supposed to appear before a disciplinary committee for a hearing on 4 August, but the date of the hearing had then been changed to 19 August. In the meantime, the school had relocated to the premises of Pneil Primary School, had six classrooms, was fenced in, and a signboard with its name was erected. The six classrooms would allow for the expansion for more learners.

Mr Archie Lewis, Chief Director, WCED, reiterated the difficulty that WCED had faced in trying to find a suitable place for the relocation of the School. The School’s demand to relocate to Erf 521 in Langdorp could not be acceded to, since the Housing Association refused this request. The School had indicated that it had a letter from the Housing Association or the Trust which authorised them to occupy Erf 521, but no such letter was ever made available, despite request.  

Stellenbosch Municipality had indicated that a second phase of development would be taking place, and during this second phase, which belonged to the Boschendal Trust, but which might be signed over to Stellenbosch Municipality, a site might be made available on a more permanent basis to the school.

Ms D N May, Principal, Nondzame Primary School, said that she was one of the founders of the school. She had asked Boschendal Trust to spell out the position in writing so that the School could have evidence. She had asked why Nondzame Primary School had been excluded when Langdorp was developed. The Trust stated that WCED had been invited to become involved in discussions about the School, but that WCED had refused to do so, stating that there was no need for additional premises at Langdorp. Ms May also approached the Stellenbosch Municipality, who had stated that no land would be made available to the School without 100% support from the WCED. She maintained that WCED did not want Nondzame School to exist separately, and the intention was to combine it with Pniel Primary School. Three offers, according to her, had been made to but rejected by WCED.

Mr Ndlazia, Chairperson, Nondzame School Governing Body, stated that during the last meeting with WCED, the former principal had not been available, but WCED nonetheless insisted that the meeting must proceed. He agreed that WCED had indicated that there would be new classrooms. However, Nondzame had told WCED that the School wished to remain “black only” and not to be integrated. There were fears, although these were denied by WCED, that the school would be destroyed.

WCED told those at the meeting that it had a new plan, and a piece of land had been allocated for the School. The SGB agreed to move so long as the legacy of Nondzame Primary School would not be destroyed, and also because it was persuaded by the officials that there was no further time for discussion. Nondzame made it a condition of the move, in the interests of the learners, that if must have separate toilets, and have nothing to do with Pniel Primary School, but maintained, contrary to earlier statements, that the land had not been fenced. The SGB still did not know for sure whether WCED had any intentions to destroy the school, and it was impossible to tell “what was in a person’s heart”. Officials had refused to answer as to why the Nondzame Primary School was left out of development plans for Langdorp.

He noted that he had been told that the principal had been suspended but his request that reasons be furnished to him had not been answered. He was not sure whether the truth was being told. He also did not know whether the WCED would relocate the School to the premises of Pniel Primary School and then leave the School destitute.

Ms B Mncube (ANC, Gauteng) requested if there was any legal documentation that stated that the school was to be moved. She also questioned for how long this temporary measure would last, and whether there was any indication of the time when the second phase of building might commence. She waned to know whether the learners had adequate facilities such as toilets, running water and enough space for the children to play. Finally, she questioned whether the School was included in the second phase of development.

Mr S Plaatjie (COPE, North West) also wanted to know about the facilities.

Mr Lyners responded that copies of documents were available, including the letter written to the Boschendal Trust and the reply, the Head of Education’s letter to the principal and the lease agreement with Boschendal Trust. In regard to the possible time frames, he noted that the WCED would work within budget and had to consider all available resources and the taxpayers’ money. Because the school had been relocated to an area adjacent to a big piece of playground, there were adequate playgrounds, and there were also toilets and running water.

Mr S Plaatije (COPE, North West) wanted clarification whether the school had been closed, merged or relocated, and asked that if this was regarded as relocation, then he wanted a reference to the section of the relevant procedures to check the relocation procedures.

Mr Plaatjie asked why the matter was referred to various stakeholders without first checking with the community.  He also enquired whether the WCED had followed the procedure in Section 33 of the South African Schools Act, and, if so, how this had been done.

Mr W Faber (DA, Northern Cape) noted the principal’s passion for her school. He said that if the school had merely been relocated, it was lucky, when compared to the numerous schools that had been closed down by the government. He added that Government and WCED could not dictate to the Boschendal Trust whether or not it must renew the lease.

Mr Faber was interested to know when the second phase in Langdorp would start. This new South Africa was an integrated but single country, and nobody should fear that another wanted to hurt him. Cultural lines should  not be exposed.

Mr Faber commended the fact that the WCED had given exact dates in its presentation. He added that because children must first be considered, the question was whether the circumstances of and the plan to relocate was in the best interests of the children. He stated that the WCED should make a follow up on Erf 512. He concluded by categorically pointing out that the issue of race should not be raised and that he was satisfied with what he had heard.

Mr Lyners stated that one of the biggest challenges the WCED faced was the issue of culture and how to respect all traditions. Whilst the mandate of the WCED was to provide schooling to every learner, the question of language was always difficult. He admitted that people tended to fear that their mother tongue would be eroded, through being ignored. He pointed out that the WCED had  acceded to the request of the School that it be permitted to continue in existence as a separate entity and the WCED had done exactly that.

Mr M De Villiers (DA, Western Cape) made mention of the problems faced by learners, including the distance the learners had to travel and their safety at school. He noted that the principal had made mention of a letter, but had given no dates as to when this letter was allegedly written, nor had she communicated it to the WCED. He reiterated that the principal had been assured that the identity of the School would not be eroded by its move to the new location.

Mr de Villiers stated that the WCED should make a follow up on Erf 512, around the issue of land and the second phase of development. He asked for clarity on the precise distance from the area where the children resided to the new site for the School.

Mr Lyners estimated that current distance the learners had to travel was now 1 km, which was around 500 metres less than they would have had to travel to the School’s former site.

Mr de Villiers pointed out that WCED should follow procedures. There now seemed to be some clarity around the School’s closure, but he asked why the WCED had not communicated with the Committee. He also asked if the principal’s concern with regard to the identity of the School was communicated to the WCED, and, if not, then he wished to know the reasons.

Mr Lyners replied that he was not aware that WCED had to communicate with the Committee.

Ms D Rantho (ANC, Eastern Cape) was impressed by the SGB’s attempts to preserve the identity and culture of the school, and not become infiltrated by other races. Although she did not know much about Pniel Primary School it seemed that it had preserved its own culture, and that Nondzame Primary School was intending to do the same.

Ms Rantho asked WCED what steps it had taken when it became aware that the contract was about to expire.

Ms Rantho asked why the principal was suspended from her duties, and whether she was earning a salary while she was on suspension.

Mr Lyners said that WCED had taken several steps, through successive MECs, since 1995. However, the principal had refused all solutions that were suggested, and she had then been cautioned that her actions would lead to disciplinary action. The actions described were taken also to prevent a civil action by the Boschendal Trust against Nondzame Primary School, the WCED and the Minister.  The principal was suspended with full pay and she had been served with all the necessary papers.

Ms Rantho reiterated an earlier question whether the School had been integrated or relocated.

Mr Lyners confirmed that the School had been relocated, and not integrated.

Ms Rantho concluded that proper communication should exist between the principal and the WCED.

Mr M Zulu expressed the opinion that there seemed to have been a breakdown in communication between the WCED and the school authority. He stated that either the SGB or the WCED had undermined each other’s authority. He suggested that the WCED should lift the suspension it had imposed on the principal, if the reason for her suspension was the fact that she had informed this Parliamentary Committee about the matter. The issue of identity was very important.

The Chairperson stated that the issue at hand was not about the principal. The Committee would have to look objectively at the issues. Oversight by this Committee would give the opportunity to interact with all the stakeholders. She enquired whether the WCED had interacted with both the SGBs from Pniel Primary School and Nondzame Primary School at the same meeting or if they had met with both SGBs separately. She also raised the question whether the WCED had informed the community. Lastly she enquired what impact the relocation had.

Mr Lewis responded that it would have been insensitive to call a meeting of both SGBs together. Separate meetings were held. WCED had not conducted any hearings with the public since the WCED could never arrange their own meetings with the communities.

The Chairperson stated that excluding the community would be insensitive. Any relocation would affect the children and the parents. She pointed that the calling of a meeting with the two SGBs was a matter of procedure, and this should have been followed.

Ms R Rasmeni (ANC, North West) stated that there were many policy issues that had not been addressed. She suggested that the Minister and MEC should be summoned to address these issues.|

Ms Rantho concurred with Ms Rasmeni, stating that she could not see an obvious solution. Relocation of a school was not a simple matter and affected the children’s’ emotions. She felt that there was a need for reconsideration by the Minister and the MEC.

Mr Zulu agreed with this suggestion, and also suggested that the suspension of the principal be lifted.

Mr De Villiers enquired about the letter that the principal had, and whether this had been given to WCED. He also suggested that the political heads be summoned to give some answers. with regards to the letter the principal had in her possession. He asked if the letter was given to the WCED. He also agreed that the political heads be summoned to come and give answers. He also understood that the WCED did not want to be involved in court cases and urged WCED to explore other alternatives. He concluded by thanking the principal.

Ms May stated that the letter in her possession was written on 21 September 2009, by Boschendal Trust. She also corrected Mr Lyners, saying that the situation started in 1995 and not 1997, when neighbouring principals visited her School seeking permission from her to merge all their respective schools. Her response had been that since this was not her School, she would refer the matter to the SGB. She had not heard anything further. She added that although there used to be 150 learners, this had decreased since parents were angry that their children would be merged with pupils from other Afrikaans schools. Every year about 10 learners dropped out. Mr Grant, the MEC for Education, was invited to come to Nondzame School and had seen that the parents were opposed to merging. An Anglican Church official had assisted the School, giving them a hall to use for three years, not to rent, and Mr Lewis was aware of this, having been present at the time. WCED had refused to accede to this.

The Chairperson stated that Ms May should submit a written submission.

Ms Mncube stated that she was now worried that new information was being put before the Committee.

The Chairperson repeated that the additional information from Ms May should be submitted in writing and that the Minister and MEC should be asked to make themselves available to answer questions.

The meeting was adjourned


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